How My Tween Braved Bullying And Conquered Her Anxiety
In all the parenting books I read before my first daughter Olivia was born, none of them included this disclaimer that could have saved me from hours of heartbreak and self criticism. A desperately needed disclaimer, that should have read “ Moms! Even if you do everything this book says , it is your child’s true temperament that will determine how they interact with their world,...so sit back and enjoy the wild ride.”
Olivia was twenty months old, when her little sister Zoe was born. Unexpectedly, I disappeared in the middle of the night, and was in the hospital for almost a week. My first night home, happy to have Olivia back in my arms we rocked and snuggled for an hour before I tucked her into her crib and Olivia started to cry. I heard the thud before I had reached her bedroom door. She had thrown herself from her crib, and so the wild ride began..
When Olivia was 4, her younger sister Zoe was often ill. We didn’t know why back then, and I was crazily cataloging all of the differences I saw, begging doctors to find the answers. Olivia, with her copper colored, curly hair was always with me, happily singing, and constantly in motion.
The part-time preschool program eventually seemed like a perfect fit for Olivia, better than keeping her busy in small appointment rooms during Zoe’s many therapist and doctors appointments. With Zoe balanced on my hip, I would walk Olivia into the preschool playground that resembled a mini-Scottsdale resort, and as soon as we were inside the gate, Olivia would latch onto my leg, crawling her way up as she sobbed, begging me not to leave.
No matter what I did, no matter what method I tried, day after day, month after month, she started each preschool day with the same begging and crying, but loved the hours inbetween saying goodbye and coming home.
This was my first glimpse at the anxiety Olivia would face for most of her early childhood, as we worked through each new school year, and the challenging start to most school days. Each year, Olivia was sweet and charming and made a good friend, someone besides me, who saw the goodness in her smile, and could make her feel secure.
In the Spring of second grade, Olivia’s mild metabolic condition shifted, and contributed to a new diagnosis of kidney disease, manageable by medication. She overcame this too, continuing to run and play each day, choosing to stay close to her best friend.
It was in the third grade, when Olivia was bullied, that her anxiety reached an all time, unmanageable high. What is important to note about how Olivia was bullied is this; the students, who were not punished, had bullied before. They recognized that Olivia was vulnerable, and chose to target her health issues. For days, Olivia silently wrestled with the emotional effects of the bullying until she refused to go to school, until she repeatedly would throw herself, like she had as a toddler from her crib, onto the sidewalk sobbing hysterically.
I grieved the loss of my happy, content child. I missed her smile, her charm, her affection , the way she shimmied across her bedroom floor as she sang her favorite songs- the way she used to start her day by sleepily climbing into my lap in the early morning, her body still warm from deep sleep, her eyes only half open as she wrapped her big girl arms around me, loving me . I missed her and I was trying everything I could think of to find her happiness again.
I went back to basics, more love, more attention, reassurance, even therapy. I read more books, trying technique after technique. There were low periods, that I could have never anticipated that were even harder than managing her little sister’s medical crises. It was her metabolic Doctor that suggested the chemical component to her anxiety may require medication. Then it was the psychiatrist, who enabled Olivia to find the words to identify the anxiety attacks she was experiencing. The tightness in her chest, the way it would ache and ache and then leave her breathless. Hearing my 9 year old describe these physical symptoms she had never mentioned left me breathless too. I agreed with the anticipatory anxiety diagnosis and the recommended prescription for Lexapro.
Like any other Doctor, this psychiatrist helped identify the specific triggers causing Olivia’s escalated anxiety and pain. As a Mom accustomed to searching for my own answers, I was relieved. Relieved even to hear, she was happy at home, and not suffering from a special needs sibling lack of desired attention, a common occurrence for kids like Olivia. I was also determined to begin my own treatment plan to empower and strengthen Olivia.
Slowly, my girl came back to me. I began doing everything I could to make her feel safe and secure, including moving her to a smaller, parochial school environment where she was better nurtured and felt more secure. Looking ahead to her future, we began roll play social situations to strengthen her self esteem. We used things that calmed her, as part of her every day, like music or reading to help her relax- at bedtime or in times of stress. We introduced coping strategies, that changed as my daughter has grown into an almost- teen.
It has been 4 years since Olivia was bullied, and she doesn’t need Lexapro any more.
My journey with Olivia, and helping her heal, overcome her anxieties is harder sometimes than mothering my younger daughter Zoe. It was Olivia, her will, her motivation, her effort, her intelligence that got her through, and helped her grow into a happier, healthier child.
Slowly, I chose to wean Olivia off the Lexapro, I want to help her experience and cope with her smaller anxieties in the real world way she will experience in her future, before she grows into the young woman who will go off to college. Selfishly, I wanted to see the authentic young lady my little girl has grown into, without medication shielding her fears.
We talk often Olivia & I ,and yell sometimes too. We talked about the process of working through her anxiety without medication and how she has been able to manage situations n along the way. Her ability to communicate, and embrace her emotions is what has strengthened her.
I took Olivia to her first concert this summer to see Taylor Swift. We listened to her music all the way to the concert, singing along in the car.
We sang about people who are “ Mean” and about emotions that move you. We sang about taking chances, and living fearlessly... and like a hazy music video I replayed scene after scene of our own journey through the years.
I realized then, that like Olivia’s childhood, all of those tears, the most difficult work to overcome her anxiety was done, behind her now, because there I was sitting next to, not an anxious child, but a beautiful, confident, happy soon to be 13 year old teen who has learned not only to laugh a lot, but to look within and trust herself.