There’s a very quiet struggle that my daughter faces. It’s a struggle that affects her every day, some days more than others. It’s a struggle that other parents have some trouble grasping. It’s heartbreaking and life-altering and just plain annoying sometimes.
It’s anxiety, and it’s something I wouldn’t wish on any child.
My firstborn has always been cerebral. Even as a baby, before we ever could have predicted the troubles that lay ahead, Shaia seemed pensive, like she was always mulling something over. Her fuzzy little eyebrows would furrow. She would stiffen and sometimes recoil from things in a way that made no sense to her father and me.
When Shaia was not quite two years old, her cousin was born. We were at the hospital with the family, and after the baby came, we went into my sister-in-law’s room to meet little Dom. My sister-in-law had had a difficult time with the birth and was in a lot of pain at the time. For days after the hospital visit, while everyone else was talking about our beautiful baby nephew, Shaia kept asking the same question in her little toddler voice.
“Aunt Felicia okay?”
This went on for a week, and, although I thought it was strange that a twenty month old not only remembered her aunt’s suffering but was so worried about it, I just chalked it up to Shaia being Shaia. She was a precocious child, even at that age.
Before she was two, Shaia was diagnosed with a peanut allergy. At first, it was super scary for us, but we learned how to deal with it pretty quickly. My philosophy was and still is that we had to teach Shaia what not to eat, how to ask about ingredients, and how to be a self-advocate. The world eats peanuts, and the world is not changing for her. I was never the mom who expected schools to remove peanuts from their cafeterias or prohibit kids from eating in the classroom for fear of an allergic reaction. It was our responsibility to teach Shaia what to avoid, and that is what we did.
Unfortunately, when Shaia was two and a half, she accidentally ingested a peanut butter cookie on Christmas day at our house. Because all of the food was controlled and made mostly by me, we’d had a discussion early in the day about eating. She was smart enough to come to me and say – “Mommy, I can eat any food I want today because the party is at our house, and you made all the cookies and chocolate!” She was so happy about this.
Already, Shaia was evaluating situations in her mind – “what can hurt me today, here in this place?” She was asking herself that question, mostly unbeknownst to me. I didn’t see the seeds of what would eventually become a bigger problem.
That Christmas, a family member brought a store bought cookie tray to my house, and with the craziness of the holidays, didn’t check for peanut contamination. When we noticed Shaia eating a peanut butter blossom, we had to give her epi-pen injection and call the ambulance. I have managed to block out most of that horrific ambulance ride, but she says she remembers it.
Looking back, that situation was a major turning point for her. Shaia knew that peanuts could kill her, and, in those moments, she was afraid she would die. She’s never outgrown that fear.
Shaia’s anxiety peaked and was diagnosed as a disorder when she was in first grade, her first year of full day school. During this time, she developed a fear of getting sick, specifically vomiting, and fear of weather, specifically tornadoes. These manifested in Shaia’s refusal to attend school. She spent hours wailing, grinding her teeth, rocking, insisting that she would not go to school.
It was so incredibly hard to watch. As parents, we want, more than anything, for our kids to be happy. Shaia was stuck inside this gray area, where she couldn’t experience the simple joys of everyday life as a six-year old. All she could see was the nebulous fuzz of what-ifs that clouded her day-to-day.
I had just given birth to our third daughter, our second was in preschool, and every morning I would literally have to force Shaia to get onto the bus, sometimes carrying her or physically nudging her out the front door. It broke my heart, but every professional advised that this was the best course of action, and a as a former special education teacher, I knew it was.
When Shaia was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, other things started to click, her difficulties being alone, trouble sleeping, and falling to sleep. I finally had a name for all of the tough behaviors. This really didn’t make it any easier, but at least I had something to tell my family, who just thought it was strange and sad that this young child was such a worry wart all the time.
My mom is a no nonsense lady. She raised me to be the strong no nonsense lady that I am, and for the most part that has served me well in dealing with all of Shaia’s behaviors. I have to be consistently stiff-backed with her when it comes to her fears. I say to her things like this “I’m so sorry you are worried that there will be a hurricane (or some other impossible weather disaster) in (landlocked) Pittsburgh. I understand you’re afraid, but a hurricane in Pittsburgh is pretty impossible, since we have no oceans here.” I don’t give in to my tendency to be sympathetic, because weakness feeds into her fears. Since she was a baby, this was the case. If I don’t stick to the script, sans emotion, Shaia wonders if I’m faltering, and then she falters. I have to be ultra-confident. I can’t “poor baby” or “aww, it’s okay come here and snuggle with me instead of taking the dog for a walk if you’re scared to go outside.”
Nope. I have to be the one to force her outside. To get her to do all the things that will prove to her that her fears are unfounded.
This is never easy for a mom, and it gets harder as the years go by. As Shaia has gotten older, her questions don’t always have straight answers. She wants me to say “no, that definitely will not happen,” and sometimes I just can’t say it.
Of course, we have taken Shaia to a counselor during the rough periods, and it has helped. The schools have been amazing for the most part in handling Shaia’s worries. Her elementary school guidance counselors were especially helpful, working with her individually and in groups in second and third grade. There have been incidences in which teachers have said things that have scared the pants off of my daughter, but it was not their fault, really. Most kids would hear a teacher say “Be careful walking home. It’s going to storm,” and they’d check their bags for an umbrella. Shaia’s mind conjures herself dodging deadly strikes of lightning and a deluge that will drown her.
Not kidding. That’s what happens to her.
And, it doesn’t help that kids tease. Naturally, kids prey on each other’s weaknesses. It’s like Lord Of The Flies on the walk home sometimes. It’s not even that these kids are mean or want to hurt my daughter. They are just joking around, but what they don’t realize is when they mess with her and say things like –“oooohh Shaia, look at the gray sky,” and then giggle, that Shaia isn’t able to laugh it off. The joke turns into Shaia’s throat getting tight and her chest feeling like there’s a brick on top of it. She comes home feeling spent at the amazing amount of self-control she’s had to put into acting like these comments didn’t really bother her.
I always tell Shaia “Don’t let your worries steal your joy.” She rolls her eyes at me, usually, but I really mean those words. I pray those words often – “Please God, don’t let her worries steal her joy.”
How has anxiety affected her life?
She worries about car rides, especially if the sky isn’t blue, so when we go on a road trip, there could be an hour or so of “I’m scared” to contend with. What is she afraid of? A car accident, getting caught in the car during a storm, or God-forbid, a tornado carrying our car off the road.
She worries about having an allergic reaction. She is ultra-careful about what she eats, but sometimes when someone sneezes or accidentally spits while speaking at the cafeteria table, she worries their possibly peanut-contaminated saliva somehow will get into her mouth.
She worries about plane rides. That the plane could crash or that someone on the plane will be eating peanuts that could lead to an allergic reaction.
She worries about terrorism. Our last trip to New York City was wonderful and horrible at the same time. It was just after the Paris attacks, and there was security everywhere. She was terrified and could not relax during the entire performance of The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular. She begged us not to go into the theatre and spent the whole time glancing back and forth at the exits and the different people in the audience.
She worries about diseases, viruses, sickness in general.
She worries about strangers, kidnappers, someone breaking into our house at night.
The list goes on.
Some strategies that we’ve learned from counseling over the years have helped. Shaia does breathing exercises to calm herself down. She has given her worries names and personalities and has drawn pictures of them being squashed or has created silly phrases about how ridiculous her fears are. This was something her counselor taught her when she was younger. She thinks of a happy place or happy time and imagines herself there.
When Shaia doesn’t get enough sleep, her anxiety is worse. When her anxiety is high, she can’t fall asleep. It’s a real Catch 22. We have used Melatonin with success to get her mind to relax so that she can nod off. During tough periods, Melatonin has at least provided us the opportunity to break the cycle.
I have learned to turn off the news when Shaia is around, and I’ve also learned that it helps to discuss something scary that has happened before she hears about it from her friends. Kids are terrible at interpreting information. They are the ultimate telephone game. Tell a child that they have to stay in at recess because of a school issue, and by the end of the day the entire class has spread a rumor that there is an unsafe individual (possibly with a gun or bomb,) who was trying to break into the school at recess. This is why I try to talk to Shaia before her friends tell her any scary world news. I don’t always get there first though, and she gets a skewed version of reality. She spends hours at school, worrying about whatever she’s been told and how it’s going to affect (harm) her. Then I have to perform damage control once she gets home.
As hard as it is to swallow, I do believe anxiety is something Shaia will always have to deal with. It’s part of her personality, and, I have to admit, her father and I have some anxiety issues as well. I am a total baby when it comes to driving in snow or heavy rain, and she has witnessed me having an anxiety attack while driving. Where my middle child would never notice my white knuckles gripping the steering wheel, Shaia is always on high alert and is extremely aware of everyone’s feelings. I’m sure that didn’t help her fears of weather or car rides.
The beautiful thing is that every time Shaia faces her fears and comes out on top, she records that experience. The next time she’s scared, the memory of that success is a weapon she has learned to use against the next worry.
Shaia has a strong faith in God, and that faith carries her through tough times. She has learned to lean on Him and pray away her fears. She is quite comfortable with Phillipians 4:6 that says- “Do not worry about anything, but in everything be prayerful.”
Shaia has been working on writing a musical she’s titled Shadow, for the past year now. The story is about a young girl who witnesses her sister being hit by a car and killed. The dead sister becomes and angel who watches over the little girl. It deals with grief and loss and faith and moving on with life – some big themes for an eleven-year old girl. The songs she has written for the show just astound me, especially because I know that Shaia channeled her fears into creating this art form.
When Shaia first showed me some of Shadow, I caught a glimpse of the something bigger that I believe exists within our struggles. Not only growth but the creation of beauty.
My hope is that by sharing my family’s journey along the road of my daughter’s anxiety disorder, another family will feel less alone in their struggles. What has worked for Shaia may not work for someone else’s daughter or son, but then again it might.
Ultimately, for all children who suffer from anxiety and for all the parents who do life alongside them, my prayer is this –that your worries may not steal your joy. May you be joyful every moment, even when you’re frightened. May beauty be born not in spite of but because of your fears. And, may you always know that you are not alone.
More about Dana Faletti: Dana Faletti is the author of The Whisper Trilogy, a young adult paranormal romance and Beautiful Secret, a sweeping adult drama of family secrets and forbidden love that is set to be released by Pandamoon Publishing in Summer of 2016. Dana blogs about whatever inspires her at, writes poetry as a survival skill and loves to connect with other writers both online and in person. When she’s not writing, Dana can be found reading on her kindle, cooking something delicious, or daydreaming about her upcoming travel destinations. She lives in in a suburb of Pittsburgh with her husband, three young daughters, and a hypo-allergenic Siberian Forest cat named Fluffy G. Check out her website for more information about Dana and her books. You can also find out more about her books on Amazon.