(Thank you, sweet Maddie, for saying, “This is good!” after reading and allowing me to share a bit of your story)
We are getting ready to send our third and last child to college in a week. She is struggling with a mixture of excitement and anxiety about what is to come.
A year ago this independent, feisty, challenge-accepting child of ours would have sent my husband and me packing as soon as we set the last box in her dorm room. But sometimes life brings unexpected changes that alter how we show up, and for Maddie, this last year has been a tough one. She persevered through two intense hip surgeries and a recovery that lasted months longer than anticipated. In pain and unable to walk the halls of her large high school, she finished her classes online instead of in the classroom with her friends. She struggled with feelings of loneliness, isolation, and fear of not getting better. The ability for her body’s health to so radically alter her world caused persistent feelings of anxiety to surface, along with questions of her capacity to succeed at a large University after the trials of this last year.
Last night she crawled in bed with me, just wanting to spend a few more hours close to familiar security. The anxiety is knocking harder as move-in-day approaches.
And also, she is bravely pushing through her fears and packing, doing virtual sorority meetings, and snapchatting her new roommate.
I am so proud of her because I know how hard she’s fighting for peace.
If you have a child with anxiety you know that peace is a precious and rare commodity, but we can help and support them in finding it.
Here are some of the questions that cause anxiety for most college-bound kids:
- Will I get along with my roommate?
- Will I find my way around this large campus?
- Will I belong?
- What if I didn’t choose the right school?
- What if I am lonely?
- What if my classes are too hard?
- How will I deal with homesickness?
- What if I don’t make any new friends?
- What if I’m unhappy?
- What if….
These are all very real, very valid fears that most kids heading to college have to work through. Freshman year in college is daunting for almost EVERY eighteen year-old whether or not they struggle with anxiety. And if they do, their inner coping mechanisms may not be enough to calm the anxious noise.
The truth is, parents, it is not easy when we have an anxious child. There is no magic formula to “fix” it for them, and no perfectly worded answer for their valid questions. Anxiety does not turn on and off with a switch. It is often a long and winding journey to learn how to live with it. But, it is absolutely possible for our child to thrive in this new journey if we can learn how to show up for them and support them in the healthiest way.
Having launched a couple offspring (and one more here in a week), my husband and I have learned some things on the parenting end that has helped us and our children make this transition.
FIRST, WHAT DOESN’T HELP
Anxiety is contagious. Did you know that? If an anxious person walks into a room full of non-anxious people, like a virus, it spreads around the room. Our children can do this to us (and vice versa). We may already have our own anxiety swirling around that we are trying to manage and then when our child begins to express their stress to us it can cause us to react in dysfunctional, non-helpful ways.
This can look like oversharing about our worries to our kids (more like a friend role than a parent), helicopter parenting (being overprotective), controlling (not letting them make their own decisions), or “fixing” them (trying to solve every problem instead of letting them figure it out). We may even find ourselves encouraging them to stay in state so we can “manage” their anxiety for them (yep, considered that).
On the opposite end, we can minimize their feelings and tell them they shouldn’t worry because that is what we are telling ourselves forty-two times a day.
Why do all these non-helpful behaviors all come so darn naturally!? Because it is really really hard to watch our children struggle. I sometimes feel a physical pain in my chest with worry. I want to make it all go away for them.
The reality is that you and I can’t make it all go away. But we can help our child learn to manage their anxiety with some tools.
TOOL #1: PUT ON A BRAVE FACE
Parents (mainly mamas), we need to “stay off the rollercoaster” with our kids. When we find ourselves getting emotionally wrapped up in our child’s situation we need to pause and take a step back. That is not helpful to them. Instead, we can be a strong, calm presence, assuring them they can do this, even if we are a mess inside. They don’t need to feel our stress…they need to know we are stable and can come to us for sound advice and comfort.
I was feeling fairly anxious the other day about Maddie leaving and then we had a video call with her doctor who manages her ADHD and anxiety medication. This blessing of a woman sat on the other side of the screen and cheer-led my daughter right back into a place of confidence and hope. Here are some of the phrases she used (take note):
“You’ve GOT THIS!”
“You are smart, beautiful, funny, and have so much to offer to this world.”
“I am so excited for you! You are going to love college, it is so much fun!”
“You have a whole team of us who will support you, we are only a Facetime away.”
“I can’t wait to talk with you in a couple of weeks so I can say, “I told you so!” 🙂
“You are going to be just fine. I have no doubt.”
I literally teared up and wanted to jump through the phone and hug this woman. I think her words spoke to me more than Maddie! I took serious note of the deliberate language this knowledgeable and experienced doctor of mental health was using with my daughter.
We need to speak confidence and hope into our children.
And also, it is just as important to validate our child’s feelings by saying, “I totally get how this is making you anxious. What support do you need from us?
TOOL #2 : TAKE OUR “FEELS” ELSEWHERE
If we can’t ride the rollercoaster with our kids, then what do we do with our very real feelings? We need to take them to our friends, our support groups in our lives, our spouse, and most importantly to God.
For me, God is the only person in my life that can truly calm my parenting worries.
You may already have a relationship with God, and if not, now is a great time to start if you are fighting this worry battle on your own. God is real, and he has an amazing unexplainable ability to calm our fears when we invite him into our lives and our circumstances.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7
Let’s first lean on God ourselves, and then help our kids do the same. They need His strength and comfort. They need to know they are not alone and they don’t have to carry the weight of worry all by themselves far away in a dorm room in a new city. God is with them wherever they go.
One thing that continues to ground me is going to God’s word, and our anxious child can find so much grace and hope around anxiety in the pages of the bible. I created a PRINTABLE to send with Maddie to school, reminding her of God’s constant love over her (she’s thinking about cutting them apart and hanging with clothespins on a piece of twine, or for bookmarks)
I have also found that taking my mom-worries to God in prayer brings peace that is hard to find in my own hand wringing. God is good and he sees our child. He will not let them fall.
For children with anxiety, prayer can be an important tool that is always with them at school. I created these PRAYER JOURNALS that might be a great gift to send with your child.
TOOL #3 TEACH ABOUT CHOICES
Did you know that many times we have a choice about our circumstances in life? We get stuck, however, because it feels scary to make a change or choose something unknown just to move forward from a situation that is not the best for us. Often we are stuck because we just don’t realize there are other options.
Jon and I are all about teaching our kids to stick it out–whether it is with a teacher they don’t like or a difficult boss at work, quitting is not a quick answer.
However, when your child suffers from anxiety, sticking it out indefinitely and feeling trapped in a bad situation only ramps up anxious feelings. In those cases, we can empower our kids by asking them questions.
“What choices do you have in this situation?”
“How could you problem-solve?”
“What is the worst case scenario and can you handle that?”
The feeling of being out of control or stuck is something that triggers anxiety, and asking these questions helps our children realize they are more in control than they thought.
I have always been fond of worst-case scenario thinking (yep, sounds quite dark). I have found that if I can play out the worst case scenario in a situation, ALMOST every time I realize it’s not as bad as I thought, or I realize I can handle it, even if it is not ideal. Anxiety causes us to “steal from the future” worrying about things that probably will never happen. When we shine some light on those fears we often realize they are not as daunting as we thought. This may be a tool that helps your child work through anxiety associated with the questions I listed earlier in this post.
Sometimes just knowing they have choices is all our kids need to push through difficult circumstances. They often choose to persevere through the harder situation because they don’t feel trapped there.
There is a lot more to unpack around our kids heading to college, but for now I hope these three pieces of advice will make the transition smoother.
- Stay strong and be a calm presence for your kids.
- Go to God with your anxiety and help your kids do the same
- Teach our kids they are able to process choices when they feel anxious or stuck
Remember, we are sending our capable, smart, adaptable kids off with support and tools for managing their anxiety–they can do this! And so can we.
P.S We can rest in the fact that God knows our child’s path and walks it with them. He loves them even more than we do, and he has a purpose and plan for their lives. If we can remember that, and remind our children of that it can help relieve anxiety all around.
I will be writing more about anxiety and our children in future posts with additional tools and resources.
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