When I was in primary school, my dad drove me to swimming lessons every Saturday morning. I loved my lessons, but the journey to the pool I absolutely did not love. In fact, it was the most stressful part of my week. Why? Because even at the age of 8 I suffered from anxiety. Anxiety that I would be late, that everyone would be staring at me as I walked in, that I would fall over and be laughed at in front of 30 or so people. My fear of being late still subconsciously grips me today. If you know me personally you will notice how I’m often early for pretty much everything. This is because although I do not fear being stared at or falling over in the same way, my habits to protect myself are completely ingrained in my every day behaviour. And believe me if I’m ever late for anything, even if I know I have nothing to fear, the same physical and mental reactions will be happening above and below the surface. And just as they did when I was 8 years old, they go a little something like this…
My heart rate picks up. My body temperature increases. I feel myself breaking out into a clammy sweat. My most feared scenarios start to play over in my head. “I’ll be late, what if I fall over? What if I am mocked for being the last to arrive? What if I can’t find my way into a building and everyone is looking at me whilst I try to find my way in?” The list of fears is pretty lengthy. But why am I telling you this?
Every morning I take kiddo to school. He loves it there, you can see he does by how calmly he comes out at the end of the day. How calm he is at home (in comparison to after he had attended mainstream for a day) and by the reports that I read daily. But the journey to school each morning? That’s a very different story.
We leave at the same time every day and we always arrive at least ten minutes early. It’s just the way I am built to cope. Kiddo has to have the same music on in the car and usually his tablet to. And everyday as we approach the same set of traffic lights he starts to get really anxious. “All done” he says as he throws his tablet on to the front seat, for he now knows where we are heading and the noise and light from his game are too much for him to process. Then the tears start. And the crying. Not angry crying, but sobbing. I can hear the anxiety in his sobs. My heart breaks little by little. As we drive into the car park he becomes quieter, and withdraws into himself. I bring him out of his trance by suggesting we go and give the receptionist a high five. This perks him up and we (usually) make it to the door where his teacher collects him without too much protest. Whilst we wait for his teacher it goes one of two ways. Tears and begging to be taken home, or hyperactive behaviour as he becomes overwhelmed with the idea of going to class. But once he is in class, he is absolutely fine. It’s over. He has a lovely day.
I explained this to friends once and you can probably guess the response I got. “He’ll be fine once he’s in there, don’t worry.” And it’s this statement right here that I have a huge problem with. Now I hold my hands up here, I use this statement. I try not too, but usually it’s all I can think of to help parents feel better about what their child goes through during an anxious transition.
As a sufferer of extreme childhood anxiety and a need for control, I can tell you straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re “ok once you get there”. That crippling, intense fear that happens along the way is very real. Just because the end result is a positive one doesn’t mean that person doesn’t experience the physical symptoms of a racing heart and sweat beads dripping from their temples. It doesn’t lessen the experience you have. It’s all very real I can assure you. And will follow you into your adult life.
I was very lucky, I had supportive parents who made sure we were on time and gave me control wherever they could. And although my anxiety has followed me into adulthood, I have learnt to control it most of the time.
When you see your child experiencing the stress of transition, don’t simply tell them they will be fine. Help them understand where they are going, that they are safe and that you will help them with what they fear most. Do not dismiss it because “they’ll be ok once they get there”. Whether they are or not is actually irrelevant in that particular moment. Because the stress of transitioning is real. It is experienced and it has long lasting effects.
Do not belittle your child’s feelings because you know the end result will be worth it. Your child doesn’t know that. As a parent you have power at a critical point in your child’s life. Use it wisely and they will thank you for many years to come.
Thanks for reading,