by Risa Green
When my son was younger, three or four maybe, I used to think that he was just a difficult person. He was moody, he was clingy, he was super sensitive to my tone of voice and he didn’t like to go anywhere or do anything, unless it was to the toy store to buy him Power Rangers or plastic swords. But bedtime  was, by far, the worst of it. After an hour of reading stories and cuddling and saying goodnight, a string of endless questions would invariably begin. Can I come in your room tonight? No. But what if I really need you? No. But what if I get sick? Then yes. But what if I’m not really sick, but I’m just feeling sick? Just go to bed, please. After twenty or thirty minutes of me gritting my teeth and trying not to lose my patience, we would, nonetheless, almost always end up in an epic battle, with me screaming at him to Just Go To Bed and him crying and yelling at me to stop yelling at him. Usually, these battles would end with my husband coming into his room and threatening to throw away all of his toys if he didn’t stop the nonsense, and then with me cuddling with him until he calmed down, usually somewhere around ten o’clock. Afterwards, my husband and I would lie in bed, feeling exhausted and guilty and horrible for letting it escalate to such a point yet again. He’s just difficult, we would tell each other. It’s not a phase. It’s just who he is.
But then, about two months ago, I had what I guess you could call one of those aha! How could I be so stupid? parenting moments. I don’t know if it’s that he’s older now and therefore more able to communicate what he’s feeling, or if I just managed to put two and two together, but as we were standing in his new camp and he was whispering to me that he felt nervous and that he didn’t want me to leave, all of a sudden I realized that he’s not a difficult person at all. He’s just anxious. The moodiness, the clinginess, the sensitivity, the not wanting to go anywhere or do anything, and especially the obsessive, relentless questions at bedtime each night – it’s anxiety. All of it is anxiety.
I’ll admit that I’m embarrassed. Not about the fact that my son is an anxious child, but about the fact that I didn’t figure it out sooner. I like to think of myself as a fairly smart, insightful person, and now, looking back, it’s all so incredibly obvious. But in my daily struggles to deal with what I considered to be his unreasonable behavior – what do you mean you don’t want to go to the zoo? What do you mean, you don’t want me to drop you off at your friend’s house that you’ve been to a zillion times? – I guess I missed the forest for the trees. I was so caught up in fighting with him, and I was so sure that he was manipulating me, that I couldn’t see what was right in front of my face.
Of course, now that I understand where all of this comes from, it’s so much easier for me to be patient with him. And although I don’t think of myself as an anxious person in general, I do become quite anxious about certain things, and in that respect, I can even relate to him. Yet while it’s great that I no longer scream at him or perceive him as being difficult, I still don’t know how to help him. So a friend of mine referred me to a child psychologist, and a few days ago I spoke to her on the phone about it all. And what she said is that I can’t change him. If he’s an anxious person, he’s an anxious person, and he always will be. But what I can do is give him tools to help him to lessen his anxiety in any particular situation. So when he’s anxious about going to a new camp, I can teach him to ask for information so that he knows exactly what’s going to happen during the day. If he’s anxious about going to a friend’s house without me, I can write down my cell phone number and tell him to call me if he’s feeling like he wants to come home. And if he’s anxious at bedtime about God know’s what, well…it’s probably going to take a few sessions for me to learn how to get him to stop asking so many questions, but at least I won’t be screaming at him anymore.
If I sound like I’m simplifying things, I don’t mean to. The damage has been done, and I’m sure that I’ve traumatized him for life – or at least made his anxiety that much worse – what with all of the yelling and the fighting and the leaving him at friend’s houses and new camps where he wasn’t totally comfortable. And it’s not like getting a schedule and giving him my cell phone number are magically going to make everything better and turn him into the kind of guy who backpacks across Europe with nothing but a map and a sense of adventure. Because it won’t, and he’ll never be that guy. But I can’t tell you how much better I feel as a mom, just knowing that I’ve identified the problem. For once, I feel like I’ve figured it out, and that I’m finally doing something right, instead of doing it all so horribly wrong. And I’ve got to say, that feels really good.