My daughter is almost 6 and I always knew she was strong willed from the womb. She’s always been a leader, likes to have control, knows what she wants, needs melatonin to sleep, has a ton of energy, thrives with routine and structure, needs to be stimulated and loves to talk and sing- at home. But at school she’s a different beast. This is good and bad.
We recently got a therapist for her mid-pandemic and it’s no joke doing telehealth with a 5 year old. However, Juliana warms up to people she knows who love her pretty easily. She likes the therapist but it can be hard to see progress in a telehealth setting, especially with a 4 year old bouncing off the walls. Her therapist and I occasionally talk without Jules and she noticed some signs of anxiety within her, which I’ve been seeing for awhile- nail biting, control issues, worries, now afraid to flush the toilet, etc. This has always been a wry of mine/ in the back of my mind. Being a special education teacher to an anxious kiddo is probably the worst thing for me because I can’t stop diagnosing and perseverating. Ok ok, most of you will say the apple doesn’t fall far and yes I have some anxieties, but I’d like to think it doesn’t control me. I’d also like to think I didn’t feel this way at 5 years old.
My mom heart is breaking as I write this because I can’t bear to watch my little strong willed leader girl lose her confidence at school. I always thought she would go head first into school as leader, but she’s the follower right now. She’s only 5, it’s okay mom. She started out kindergarten strong and preschool was wonderful. As I navigated the hardest year of my mom and teacher career I can’t bear to think how I may have failed or missed the anxiety that started to eat her up at school and in her little sweet heart. When she acts out at home I think some of the feelings she experiences manifest into “acting out” or becoming “out of control”- screaming, crying, refusing to wear a bun (I’ll get there soon), not listening, meltdowns… Some of this is developmentally appropriate and I typically push it aside and process with her about her feelings when she’s ready because, hi I’m a special ed teacher and I can’t seem to take that damn hat off, but I also just want to fix everything and put her heart back together. I know that she has to learn and go through these feelings to grow and become who she is.
As the year went on and the months passed and we were back in school full time (which we have been for awhile now), she was thriving. Her teacher was proud of her and always reported positive things at conference and casual texts. I never worried about my beautiful warrior at school. The best part? I get to see her everyday because I’m a teacher at her school and I like to visit her for lunch.
Just recently though she started to become afraid of flushing the toilet at school and in public places. This is just one thing. The meltdowns at home are less and less, family get togethers feel more manageable and enjoyable, she’s involved in gymnastics, and she hardly bites her nails. We still see her therapist via telehealth, but only once every 2 months. But at her core, she is vulnerable and anxious and sensitive and sweet and not calm and energetic and needs control to feel grounded. At home she is hyper, loving, wants to play with Hudson, is somewhat independent, strong willed, moody, not afraid to flush the toilet, is loving and caring to Hudson, a sensitive soul, sometimes defiant- and while this all sounds negative, I always shoved it in that “leader and confident” category. At school, she is timid, anxious, bright, sweet, a sensitive soul, wants everyone to like her, is worried what everyone will think about her, is starting to obsess over what other people are doing or wearing or eating and wants to copy them, which in turn can annoy them- Cue the kindergarten drama and I don’t say this lightly. This what my nightmare. PS notice sensitive soul both at home and school.
What I’ve learned about my little warrior girl is that she shoves feelings way deep in her heart. When they start to overflow, her emotions run wild. They come out in increments and they spill out over time. They manifest into those “home meltdowns” that we don’t see at school and hopefully never will. It’s really heartbreaking to see your confident little girl at home who loves to be a leader and love with all her heart to then become this timid, shy, I’m begging you to like me, shutdown if the kids don’t want to play with me, really afraid to flush the toilet because once it “exploded” with toilet paper and water, once there was a big ant, and all the time it makes a loud scary sucking noise little girl. The fear actually got so big that it was bigger than caring what others thought about her if she had an accident. Two big ones in one day to be exact. It came on and hit me like a ton of bricks on a random day in May at noon. Her teacher called my classroom and said she had an accident. There are pros and cons to working in the same school your kid goes to- but I think they are pretty even. Pro? I had extra pants for her and ran down to help her. My little warrior was standing there with no pants on, somewhat embarrassed and standing there awkwardly. I don’t like to make big deals of anything (even if it’s big) and I just hugged her quick and got her on her way. Her eyes caught mine and she looked a little sad and relived at the same time. My mom heart broke again thinking of her feeling nervous, anxious, and embarrassed. At this point, I missed the “scared of flushing the toilet so I hold my pee” memo until 300 the same say when she had another accident. Because this was a new big feeling for her and this didn’t happen at school previously- at least not 2 big accidents in one day and then trembling at the flush- I’m talking full body shaking trembling scared. It took a lot of momming and probing and trying to figure out why she wasn’t just using the bathroom when she had to go. I think most of us moms just want to hurry and fix everything instead of trying to understand the root matter. I know I’m guilty. I have so much going on at all times of the day and my poor brain doesn’t stop- just use the bathroom, right? Wrong.
Cue the next thing and this is the thing that broke me tonight. My heart is in a million pieces in her bed. I’m next to her as I write this because she’s asleep and right before this I probed a bit to see how her day was- which I always do. Sometimes she gives, sometimes she doesn’t. Tonight she gave and I wish I didn’t know. On a positive note, she’s been accident free at school, we followed up with her therapist, I’ve been doing social stories about the toilet, we set up a plan with her teacher, and she’s doing wonderful! Whenever she goes to the bathroom she can earn candy because with life skills it’s important to beef up that incentive and this chick loves candy. I’ve also been practicing at Target (duh) and other public places. She’s still scared but persevering. My warrior.
Ok back to the next thing that really broke me. Tonight I asked her if she felt happy at school because other little things have been coming up- she doesn’t want to wear a bun in her hair because she doesn’t want anyone to make fun of her, she didn’t want to wear water shoes at the neighbors because she was afraid of what the kids would say, she doesn’t want anyone to see her crying (because I think she’s afraid she will get made fun of), and she only wants to wear tight shorts (not loose shorts) or a dress to school. While she seems more regulated and comfortable at home (still always who she is to me if that makes sense), she seems more anxious at school and more than I’ve noticed ever before, needs approval from all kids. She shared with me last week that one specific boy called her out on the playground and yelled that she was afraid of the toilet and all the kids laughed. F my heart thinking of her standing in the middle of a playground all awkward and shy with no place to cry or retreat. It’s life and how she learns I get it, but I always imagined her as holding her own and giving it right back. You might wonder how I know she didn’t do that. To be continued.
Tonight she shared with me (prompted) that her best friend who she has recently become “obsessed” told her today to find new friends and can’t go to her birthday party all in one sentence- from what I understand. Juliana actually started to cry (big breakthrough for her) and tell me she loves her and wants to play with her. Her little brain tried to process out loud that the friend she adores doesn’t want to be her friend- at 5 years old. I asked her how she felt and what she did. Her response? “I said okay and played alone. Then I found another friend and we played, but I miss her.” I can’t handle this because I physically feel what she felt on the playground. And I’m 36, not 5.
Here’s the to be continued part. During field day the other day I happened to be out there and caught a glimpse of her laughing one minute to crying and becoming awkward as she ran under the parachute to a “red” spot next to her best friend, but another girl took her spot. I watched her under there trying to navigate those uncomfortable feelings in front of parents and all the kids. She saw me and ran to me. I hugged her with all my heart and tried to teach her to fly. This was the part o dreaded. All I could hear in my heart was: Dear mom, let her go to let her grow. Give her love and let her figure it out on her own. I peeled her crying face off me and told her she’s got this and it’s okay. I cried in the bathroom right after and got it together. As her and I talk throughout the in between’s of the chaos in our days, I see the anxiety come to play. The pieces are being put together for me and I’m trying to navigate this new role. Hearing her want to wear the same thing as her best friend, being anxious about what people think, increased nail biting, accidents at school, physically seeing Juliana nonverbally “begging” for her approval- but her friend appears annoyed, Juliana awkwardly looking for a friend on the playground- this is hard. There are no directions on how to navigate your once fierce warrior feeling swallowed by big feelings that you always wanted to protect her from. I remember laying naked in bed with Jules as a newborn- I’m talking first day back home from the hospital- bawling my eyes out to God because I never wanted her to leave my chest, my safe arms around her. I’m her safe place and I can’t always be there. I’m not supposed to be. I have to let her go to grow, but I also have to balance being there for her and building her confidence to letting her figure out feelings and emotions on her own. Try telling a 5 year old that you shouldn’t be friends with someone who doesn’t want to be friends with you. Don’t worry, I didn’t tell her that, but we, as adults, would tell each other that.
I wish there was a table of contents for parenting an anxious child. Hell, I wish there was a table or contents for parenting, period. My little warrior doesn’t come with directions, but I know she’s making me a better mom. She’s a sensitive soul with big feelings and she’s learning how to navigate them. Hmm, kind of sounds like me. We are who we are and we aren’t sorry. I just pray someday she knows that she has superpowers and I pray so hard that the mean part of the world doesn’t swallow her whole. My job is to help her realize that. This is the hardest part: realizing I can’t fix it. A big fat hug no longer makes it all better. This is something she has to figure out on her own. I can’t do all the work, but make her realize her worth. And that she’s amazing and beautiful on the inside and out and she should never ever change.
We, the sensitive souls, need directions.