As I stare out of the window at the dusk slowly covering the world in a blanket of blackness, my heart feels heavy. Today was going to be the start of something; a new beginning to fix the mistakes of the past.
I had such high hopes for today – we were going to tackle your childhood anxiety together and take some positive first steps.
But I failed.
Tackling childhood anxiety: our plan of action
Just before Christmas, Jenny started displaying signs of childhood anxiety. She has started relentlessly licking her lips until they become red and cracked, and she flicks her head, unable to make eye contact.
I still haven’t identified a cause.
But today, I decided to spend some one-on-one time with her. The plan was a mummy-daughter date to the doughnut shop – a chance to spend quality time together.
I had already decided that we wouldn’t talk about the anxiety – I didn’t want this to feel like an interrogation – I just wanted her to be the centre of my attention for a change to boost her confidence.
But things didn’t go to plan.
Plan B: shopping
When we arrived at the shopping centre, there was nowhere to sit in the doughnut shop, and we both decided that we weren’t actually that hungry. We decided to do some shopping instead.
It started off well and we enjoyed holding hands and sharing our finds with each other. Jenny found something she really liked and I said I’d buy it for her.
But then the afternoon started to unravel.
Jenny suddenly decided she didn’t want to buy that – she wanted to look in a different shop for something. Then she wanted to try somewhere else. She surged from one brightly-packed shelf to another, overwhelmed by the choice and the self-inflicted pressure to choose something.
She was getting more and more agitated about finding the “right” thing. She couldn’t make a decision.
I had just wanted to surprise her by buying something that she wanted and instead I made the anxiety worse. She was getting thoroughly worked up, and even when I tried to suggest we give up and head back to the doughnut shop, it didn’t help.
She looked so miserable.
I’ve wasted your time
I tried to put her feelings into words so that she could help to process them. I asked if she was sad that we hadn’t found something to buy? Or if she was worried about choosing the wrong thing? But she just kept shaking her head, unable to express the deep anguish in her heart.
Finally, she blurted out, “I’ve wasted your time!”
Those words nearly broke me.
In the middle of the crowded shopping centre, I got down on my knees to look her in the face.
You have not wasted my time. I have loved spending time with you. I didn’t come here to buy things. I came because I wanted to be with you. I wanted to have an afternoon, just the two of us, because you are so precious to me and I miss you.
I have loved wandering around the shops with you and talking about the things we’ve found. Today was never about finding something to buy – it was about enjoying each others’ company.
The words poured out of my mouth and the tears poured down my cheeks. The deep-seated feeling of inadequacy hidden beneath her simple statement is painfully familiar, and it cuts me up to think that she experiences this pain that I have battled with all my life.
I poured out my heart to her and said all the things that I have always wished someone would say to me.
For those few fleeting minutes, no-one else in the world mattered. It was just she and I…
…And the relief that swept across her face was incredible. She transformed into a different child – like a heavy weight had been lifted and she was free to be a carefree kid again.
She beamed at me, slipped her hand in mine, and skipped off to the carpark.
It’s not over
But I can’t celebrate this as a win – a breakthrough maybe, but not a win. The exhaustion of spilling out all that emotion has left me feeling crushed. I had intended today to be fun and instead I gave her an afternoon of torture.
But I’m learning.
Yes I understand her worries, but I’ve never been the parent in this scenario before. And childhood anxiety is difficult to work with because the emotions are often too huge for the child to understand and explain.
So shopping didn’t work. I think I need to find something that doesn’t require decisions.
The doughnut shop would probably have been a good choice because Jenny already has a favourite doughnut so we’d just order her regular.
Other possibilities could be going swimming or playing a boardgame. These are both things that Jenny enjoys doing and that would involve us spending time together in a fun environment.
I’d like to avoid passive activities like watching a film or reading a book as we wouldn’t really be engaging with each other through these. Similarly, a trip to a play gym or playground would just involve me watching her rather than sitting time together.
I’ll keep you posted…