The summer that I was pregnant with Seuss will be emblazoned on my brain for the rest of my years. T was just a toddler and Leo was 3-years-old.
It was the height of Leo’s struggle with sensory processing disorder. He was a whizzing, whirring, tornado full of 3-year-old who was afraid of every little noise.
Automated toilets and hand dryers
It was exhausting. It was a hot summer that year and I was in my last trimester of my pregnancy with Seuss. Technically speaking, I was supposed to be “on rest” but that is laughable when you have two little ones.
I referred him for an evaluation through our school district, but he was not eligible for services due to the fact that, developmentally, he was on target or ahead in all other areas. I’m sure that many parents of twice-exceptional children can relate to this struggle. I knew he needed help, and yet he was too far ahead [in some areas] to get the help he needed.
In an attempt to help us survive the summer, my husband got us a membership to a local pool. The idea was that I would plunk myself on the edge of the kiddie pool or in a nearby chair and oversee the kids as they wore themselves out with kiddie pool and water table fun. We’d go home at the end of the day and they’d sleep like little champs! Best laid plans.
Best Laid Plans: When Anxiety Throws You For a Loop
Best Laid Plans: When Anxiety Throws You For a Loop #1
What really happened was that my toddlers had an absolute blast in the kiddie pool for about two days… until Leo tripped while walking in the pool and fell face first in the water. Rather than standing up, he panicked. I pulled him out and he was fine. The whole incident was over in seconds after which he dashed off to play and have fun. I didn’t think twice about the whole thing until the next day.
The next day, Leo was not himself. He was extremely cautious and would hold onto the sides of the kiddie pool the entire time. He was absolutely terrified of his sister being in the pool. Any time she’d put her feet in, he’d start hollering, begging me to get her out. He was afraid that she, too, would fall face first in the pool.
Now, I could go on and on and on about how we supported him through this fear. We did work through it, but it was a long process and a very long summer for our family.
And, because Leo tends to stew on things for a while until they bubble over, once summer was over and Seuss joined our family, I began to have concerns about how the next summer would go. We are a family that needs to be outdoors in the summer and, if it’s a hot summer, we prefer to be outdoors near water. I had noticed that Leo would occasionally talk about the pool incident, and so I knew he was still stewing. In order to alleviate any remaining anxiety, I signed him up for swim lessons at an indoor pool that he loved. The pool had a fantastic diving board and Leo had big plans for that diving board… if only he could pass the swim test. It was a perfect situation: take swim lessons in the pool you love with the diving board that you fantasize about right in view. Talk about a set-up for success! Best laid plans.
Best Laid Plans: When Anxiety Throws You For a Loop #2
Here’s what really happened, folks. I signed Leo up for those swim lessons. He was thrilled! So excited! Over the moon! Until we got there, and then he started to drag his feet a little bit because that’s what my little perfectionist always does whenever he tries something new. Eventually, with a lot of support, he was able to put his feet in the pool. The instructor asked him if he’d like to watch the class for a little bit from the edge of the pool, by the steps, until he felt comfortable. This was perfect! I saw him relax, and I also saw him eyeing the diving board. I watched as he left the edge and sat on the first step of the pool. The instructor and I exchanged smiles. It was working! Indeed, a minute later he had moved down to the second step. He was invested! He was going to participate in the very first swim class, despite his worries. He’d learn to be comfortable with the water. He’d have plenty of time between now and next summer to have positive experiences with the water. I watched as my little guy moved to the third step down. I felt so proud of him! He had been plagued with water-related worries all summer and was overcoming them before my eyes. This little guy, who had a history of sound sensitivity, was in a loud, echoey pool and was rocking it! He had his eyes on that diving board and he was motivated and brave.
Best. Laid. Plans.
Do you ever feel as if you are on candid camera? As if someone, somewhere, is playing a trick on you? Well, what happened next felt like that. Leo had no sooner sat his little tush on that third step when a horrible mechanical noise came from the pool. At the same time, water came spraying out of the pool’s recirculation system and right into Leo’s sweet face. He screamed and his arms shot up in the air. Just as he had panicked when he fell in the pool months before, he did not move out of the line of fire but sat there, screaming. I rushed to him and scooped him up in my arms. And then we left. On the way home, my sweet, sad, 3-year-old cried about how the pool had “attacked” him. And do you know what? It had.
Anxiety is a tough beast to manage
Here’s the thing about anxiety: it ebbs and flows. Sometimes it spikes and other times it goes on hiatus. Sometimes, you’ll assume you’ve conquered it once and for all, only to have it pop up again with a vengeance out of the clear blue. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, it changes the game. As a parent, it can be challenging to know when to support and power through and when to support and back off entirely.
Anxiety is a tough beast to manage period. Add sensory processing disorder to the mix and you have one scary animal. SPD and anxiety feed off of each other. It’s one of those chicken-egg scenarios, and you’re not sure which one comes first, but they both feed off of and fuel each other, resulting in one terrible mess.
So much of parenting is knowing your child and trusting your gut and uttering a prayer that you’re doing it right. We left the pool that day and we took an entire year off from lessons of any sort. We didn’t push him to overcome any anxiety he had about water, but neither did we avoid it. We didn’t join the pool the following summer, but we did spend many days at pools or on beaches with friends and family members. We had some challenging days and some wonderful days too. That’s the nature of the anxiety beast, isn’t it?
The next fall, one year after the day the pool attacked him, I stumbled upon a Groupon deal for small group swim lessons at a nearby pool… a pool that was previously unknown to us. I snatched up the deal and signed Leo and T up for a lesson. As it turns out, no one else wanted the slot that we had selected and so we enjoyed private swim lessons. On the first day, Leo balked as he usually does. He was quite anxious, but you could also see he was interested. The swim instructor was amazing. As it turns out, she had years of experience working with adults who were afraid of swimming. She managed to get him in the pool that day. By week two, he was smiling and by the third week, he was diving off the side of the pool.
Thankfully, we’ve conquered our fear of water, just as we’ve conquered the mourning doves, crickets, automated toilets and hand dryers, lawn mowers, blow dryers, air conditioning and planes overhead, among many, many others.
But, all parents of worriers know that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
One night, in August, Schizz and I sat down to watch a movie. I had been thinking about our summer, and what a fun summer it had been, when I realized something: this summer, for the very first time, Leo wasn’t our most challenging child. I shared this realization with my husband and he replied, “You know you just jinxed that now, don’t you?”
That week, T broke her arm and the anxiety beast returned with a fiery vengeance. Jinx or not, we were once again deep in the throes. We muddled through, as we always do. I find that every time the anxiety swells, we are better prepared. We’ve done this before and we have oodles of tools in our toolbox. We can look back upon all the times we’ve conquered the beast before and have faith that we will do it again.
Sometimes, trusty anxiety-fighting tools will fail you
Leo has always been a kid who thrives in nature. Our family prefers to be outdoors than indoors, and Leo has been enjoying hikes, year round, since before he could walk. One of his favorite extracurricular activities is spending time outside, in nature. He is a calmer and happier child when he’s had ample outdoor time.
This fall, I signed him up for a once-a-week nature class at a nature center that we adore. When the anxiety ramped up, I figured that this would help. I assumed that Wednesdays would be his best day of the week because he’d have more outdoor time than even I could provide.
Best laid plans.
Best Laid Plans: When Anxiety Throws You For a Loop #3
Leo was excited about his first nature class. Unlike other activities, he never refuses this one because we have visited this nature center weekly since he was born. Still, his anxiety was high due to the broken arm. Because his anxiety was high, he was on alert. His SPD, which had been barely noticeable for over a year, had spiked as a result.
He was a little bit anxious on week one. It was worse on week two. On week three, I got a phone call. Another teacher had to take him back to the office because he had been terrified during the hike.
Folks, my kid was afraid of hiking!
When I went to pick him up, he was chattering away happily. He and the other teacher had selected herbs from the garden with which to brew a tea. He was joyful, there was no trace of the worry monster.
When I talked to him about it later he was able to share a few details. He said he was hearing too many noises. A fellow classmate had told a tall tale about a gigantic rattlesnake. He thought the single-file trails were dark and creepy.
My heart ached for him. This child is happier outdoors than indoors. He thrives in nature. Our family thrives in nature. This is a situation where we needed to power through.
Best Laid Plans: When Anxiety Throws You For a Loop #4
After each nature class, we meet up with some of Leo’s friends and hike together. Powering through, we hiked that afternoon despite that morning’s events. He was anxious but willing to hike. He was on alert, hearing every little noise and asking lots of questions. Still, he was brave and powered through. He told me he didn’t want to be afraid of hiking, either.
And then, we had another one of those candid camera moments. We were on the main trail, hiking along when suddenly we heard an owl.
Folks, the owl was loud and it was right overhead. I’m sure that, had it not been for the trees, we would have seen it. I love owls and I was mesmerized by its call. It was as if we had stepped into the pages of Owl Moon. I was thankful that our friends, who needed to leave the hike a bit early, were able to hear it before they left. We said our goodbyes, as the owl hooted above and around us.
And then there was T. Exhausted by her first month in kindergarten, T was “too tired to walk” and was sprawled in the middle of the trail, tantruming. I kid you not, folks, a jogger had to jog right over her!
As I attempted to talk Leo down while struggling to lift a limp and angry almost-six-year-old to her tired feet, Leo lost it. He would run up ahead of us, yelling and begging us to leave the woods, and then run back to us once more. Repeat, repeat. All the while, T would flop to the forest floor and refuse to budge.
In case you are wondering about Seuss, he was there, too. He was happy as a clam, hooting back to the owl much to Leo’s chagrin. He kept laughing and saying, “This is just like Owl Moon!!” while Leo begged him to stop talking to the owl.
Eventually, we made it out of the forest but it took a long, loud, time.
On the drive home, once Leo had calmed down, he explained to me why he was so afraid. Owls, he said, are nocturnal. We have hiked innumerable times before and had never heard an owl at any time of the day, let alone at 2:30 on a sunny afternoon. The owl was hooting a lot, and, therefore, Leo assumed that there had been a threat to the owl. The owl was awake and hooting due to its own alarm system.
This explanation made a whole lot of sense to me. As usual, the kid had a point.
Still, my little guy loves nature. I couldn’t let the anxiety monster trick him into fearing a thing that he loves. And, so, we powered through. We’ve been enjoying MindUp and HeadSpace and we’ve had many conversations lately about the human brain – specifically, the amygdala- and how we can trick and re-train our brain to overcome worries.
Leo and I made a pact to overcome the worry monster’s latest trick: nature. We are a family of hikers and we can’t have a hike-phobic kid. It occurred to me that we had been so busy with September madness that we had hiked far less than normal. Together, we decided to make up for lost time. The weather was gorgeous! There is nothing like Fall in New England. We made a pact to hike daily, weather permitting. It would be our attempt at nature exposure therapy. I promised to support him through this fear and to make it fun. We’d gather materials for fairy houses! We’d make maps! We’d climb trees! We’d catch frogs!
And, I’m happy to report that we did just that. We cleared our schedule of homeschool and life to-dos and must-dos and made space for nature. We hiked every single day, and we had tons of fun.
I was talking to a friend the other day about how this is one of the homeschool perks that many don’t talk about. Every kid goes through rough patches. With homeschooling, you can pause the action and focus on the need in a way that you cannot with public school.
I’m happy to report that we’ve [mostly] conquered this one. The other day, we woke up to torrential rain, a mountain of laundry, and a to-do list that could no longer be ignored. I declared it to be an indoor day. We’d catch up on a little homeschooling, make some applesauce, do puzzles, and play games.
When Leo heard this, his eyes filled with tears. He pulled a hand-drawn map from his pocket and showed me the plans he had come up with for our day.
I really really wanted to hike today, he sniffed, rubbing his eyes.
We compromised. We tackled the must-dos (and left the to-dos), some of the laundry, and we waited for a break in the clouds. Then, we spent time outside.
Because Leo is a kid who loves nature, who thrives in nature. Take that, worry monster!