“Happy children are all alike; every unhappy child is unhappy in its own way.”
With respect to Mr Tolstoy, I can’t think of a better way to summarise why it’s so hard parenting a special-needs kid. In my case, it’s a kid with anxiety, but anxiety looks different in every child. What I do know is this: some kids are just harder to parent than others.
My eldest was very nearly an only child, he was that darn hard to raise as a baby. Day one at the hospital and a midwife told me he’d “never be a sleeper”. I was indignant at the audacity of a professional saying such a thing to a brand new mum, but it turned out she did me a huge favour.
What I do know is this: some kids are just harder to parent than others.
“He’s just born this way,” I would remind myself, when night after night my anxious kid wouldn’t sleep. “It’s not anything I’m doing or not doing.”
What a gift!
Chances are, if you’re having problems with your own kid, it’s not anything you’re doing or not doing, either. Kids just come out the way they come out, and every kid has a rough patch here and there. Here’s what I know.
1. Get your own head together.
Now, I know I just said that it’s probably them, not us, but hear me out.
Parenting a kid with anxiety will make you anxious too, if you let it. Despite knowing it wasn’t true, I used to fret like crazy that my kid wasn’t okay when he was away from me. Of course he was okay, but sometimes his anxiety was like a virus I would catch.
Get into your own head and have a good poke around.
If you find yourself worrying excessively about your kids (whether they are anxious or not), you need to sort it out. You don’t want to be the one infecting them with the anxious virus.
Try this: Some strategies to help you worry less
Perhaps you have a different virus: your own loneliness might make you focus too heavily on your child’s friendships. Or poor feelings of self-worth might mean you criticise your kids a lot. And so on… there are many ways our own issues can get in the way of steady parenting. Get into your own head and have a good poke around.
2. Enabling your kid isn’t a good idea
Every time I used to sit by my son’s bed, guarding against the night, I thought I was helping him. All I was doing was reinforcing that he was right to be anxious. I was telling him that he couldn’t cope on his own, he needed me to be there.
One of my life values is responsibility, and I was letting my son’s anxiety rob me of my ability to teach him this key value. I needed to learn to parent the child, not the anxiety. Once I did this, we saw huge progress.
Parent the kid, not the situation.
Perhaps you enable your kid in other ways: disorganisation is rewarded with a quick school assignment drop off; being rude or aggressive is rewarded with a parent giving in; social shyness is rewarded with a parent doing the talking, and so on. We parents do this one a lot, and it’s not helping our child learn that they can do hard things. Parent the kid, not the situation.
More on this: We need to stop being so available to our kids
3. Be there, without being there
That said, being there for your kid is the most important thing. You might say, “It’s up to you remember your assignment on the day it’s due, so I can’t bring that to school for you. When I see you this afternoon, let’s have a chat about getting more organised, I’ve got some ideas…”
When you’re pushing your anxious kid to do the thing they are most fearful of, it’s bloody terrifying, but they need to simply see a strong face, nodding confidently at them to go ahead. It’s a lot easier to do this when we say something like, “Go to school camp, stay overnight, and you can tell me what you thought of it when I see you at 4.15 tomorrow afternoon.” Or, “Speak to your teacher about how you feel, and when you get home we’ll draft the follow-up email together.”
There, but not there.
4. Let some things go
When you’ve got a kid with anxiety, you learn pretty quickly that you can’t make a big deal about every little thing. A lot of their worries have to slide on by to the keeper, so you can focus on batting the ones that really matter.
This is good practice for parents in general. A kid’s day is all-consuming, but most of the little niggles and irks they will have forgotten about by tomorrow. Instead of engaging them and making a big deal out of their concerns, simply listen and say something like, “That sounds really tough, I hope it’s easier tomorrow.”
A kid’s day is all-consuming, but most of the little niggles and irks they will have forgotten about by tomorrow.
We can especially see this in action with friendship groups, or relationships with teachers. How they feel about both can change on the daily. Don’t try to bat away all their concerns. Stand by for the big ones.
5. Focus on the positives
We can’t all be good at all the things. Raising a kid with anxiety was what made me start researching strengths-based parenting. It just felt like we were always focusing on what my son couldn’t do, rather than what he could. That’s the nature of a mental illness, of course, but it has ramifications for all of us. Accepting that we won’t be good at everything, means we free ourselves up to concentrate on what we are good at.
More about strengths-based parenting: Focus on the cans, not the can’ts
“I’ll never be good at Maths”; “Probably not, but studying will make you as good as you can be at Maths, and that matters just as much.”
Accepting that we won’t be good at everything, means we free ourselves up to concentrate on what we are good at.
“I wish I was a faster runner”; “You could train more, but that would take time away from your swimming, and you’re so good at that.”
“I’m not as pretty as Sarah”; “Well, hardly anyone is, but luckily being the prettiest isn’t what makes a person attractive.” And so on.
6. We don’t have to be infallible
A break-through with my son’s anxiety was when I shared times I had been anxious myself. Not only was I showing him that it’s okay to be anxious, I was also sending him the message that having anxiety isn’t being anxiety. We can live with it and not make it our whole life.
This is true of anything in our kids’ lives. I know some parents like to pretend they never got it wrong, but I’ve learned to not be one of them.
Yes, I was mean to people. Yes, I did wrong by my friends. Yes, I wagged school. Yes, I failed Maths. Yes, I did drugs. Yes, I did stupid, stupid things. Getting to talk about those times with the kids has led to the best conversations. They know that while I will try not to judge their choices, I will absolutely judge them for thoughtlessness and carelessness, so think things through properly before you do them.
7. Humour conquers all
When in doubt, have a laugh. Even if it’s about your greatest fear. Any kid with anxiety will tell you that laughing about it is, but if you can do that, you can do anything. Finding humour in any given situation teaches us that if things go wrong, choose joy.
What have your kids taught you?