Among adults, anxiety is a huge part of the mental health conversation. There are hundreds of articles, Instagram accounts, Facebook groups, and stories to help guide us through our daily struggles and remind us that we’re not alone. With children, the conversation seems quieter and the resources, fewer. According to the CDC, 7.1% of children aged 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety and another 3.2% suffer from depression. Because it can be hard for young children to identify and articulate their feelings, it can be hard for their parents to support them.
I recently sat down with my inspiring friend and January Moon family member, Shannon, to talk about her amazing, brave, bright light of a daughter, Elsie (7). Elsie has been coping with anxiety since kindergarten and Shannon was gracious enough to open up about her family’s journey.
How old was Elsie when you started noticing that she was feeling “big” emotions that she was struggling to balance on her own?
We started noticing these episodes in Kindergarten. Elsie began to have tantrums that were totally out of character. They were extreme, different from the typical defiant five year-old reactions that her friends seemed to have when under pressure. I could tell that she was hurting but neither she nor I could figure out why.
It took all of us time, even Elsie, to identify the trigger. She was experiencing some bullying at school from a typical “mean girl” and her heart had taken quite a hit. Because she was so small, she wasn’t able to put words to the situation or to her emotions. The “Big Feelings” (as she now calls them) that she was experiencing at school — fear, shame, pressure — manifested as major behavioral problems at home and we didn’t know how to help. We found a lot of information about sensory issues and various health problems but none of it seemed to fit.
Describe how Elsie’s behavior shifts gears when her senses become flooded or overwhelmed?
We can usually tell something is going on with her when her patience is super low. The little things become HUGE things very quickly. Even though now, at seven, she has an otherworldly gift when it comes to explaining her feelings after a meltdown, but in the midst of one, all she feels is rage. Her anxiety cycle is devastating to watch. It starts with anger, then turns to shame, followed by deep remorse.
When did it click with you that her symptoms could be associated with anxiety?
Even after the situation in the classroom was resolved, I would watch her tiny chest puff up before walking into the school building, almost like she was zipping everything up so she could handle whatever would be thrown at her that day. I remember having to pull the car over one day after dropping her off to call my husband, Benji. I was so shaken after I watched her collect herself, it seemed like such an adult way for a small child to cope. It was more than just nerves. It was true anxiety. I wept and told him we needed help.
The tantrums and outbursts were happening daily at that time, which was hard, but the most concerning thing was that I could tell she was starting to feel badly about herself. It’s normal for a kid to have a short fuse some days, but it isn’t normal when they point out all of the things that are wrong with themselves and cry in your arms because they don’t know how to fix it all.
Who did you turn to for guidance and support?
The guidance counselor, Julia, at Elsie’s school has been a rock for us. She worked closely with Elsie in kindergarten to help her recognize the emotions she was feeling and gave her tools on how to have conversations about them. She is helping her to understand that other people’s actions are NOT her fault, but how she responds to upsetting events IS her responsibility. Elsie is doing better with school, but we have decided it’s time to search for a therapist to help guide our family at home. My husband and I both have close family members living with depression and anxiety disorders and recognize that we need help as Elsie’s parents to know how to support her confidently and with compassion.
What strategies/tools have you figured out that work for her to help her cope?
Last year her teacher introduced mindfulness activities to her class and she responded really well. She has found so much comfort from doing her butterfly and starfish breathing exercises! Her teacher showed her how yoga and stretching give her a good kind of energy that can help break the anger cycle when she feels it bubbling up. If she starts feeling overwhelmed at home, there is a box of “comfort tools” in her bedroom that has a collection of squishies, fidget spinners, sensory-friendly toys, and of course her favorite chewable January Moon Sensory necklace, that we make sure is always available to her.
Elsie has an Amazon Echo in her room and has discovered the command, “Alexa, start 5-minute meditation for kids” so she can take a mindful moment. Occasionally, I’ll hear her doing breathing exercises with her little sister, Maisie, which is the most adorable thing in the world! We still have work to do but I’m so proud to see her happily sharing the techniques she uses with others.
What strategies have you figured out that help you and Elsie cope and keep your cool when she is spinning?
Yikes. Honestly? This is NOT easy. I am working on remembering to give myself grace in this department. There are many times when I don’t keep my cool because some of her meltdowns are so irrational I wish I could just shake her and say, “WHO EFFING CARES?!” But then you take a deep breath and remind yourself that the emotions pouring out of her at that moment are 99.9% of the time, connected to something else that she is trying to process internally.
We let her be angry. Frustration and big feelings are nothing to be ashamed of. In her room, she’s allowed to scream, cry, kick, or punch something soft (as long as it isn’t her sister) to let it all out. Despite our best efforts, she normally feels badly after she regains control. As a parent, this is the hardest part.
My husband and I have a practice of telling her that we love her over, and over, and over again (four times to be exact) with the hope that no matter how awful she is feeling at that moment, she knows that we are on the other side of the door loving her. Once she is calm, we talk about what set her off, how we can all learn from the incident, and always always, end by complimenting her ability to sit and talk about it with us afterward.
Then the grown ups have a cocktail because … damn.
You mentioned earlier that Elsie uses her January Moon necklace as a “comfort tool.” How does it help her?
Elsie loves her necklaces! She did a photoshoot for January Moon a couple of years ago and I noticed she would pull out her chewable jewelry on days she needed more comfort (whether she realized it or not). I noticed, on a particularly hard day, she was chewing on it at Girl Scouts and I texted Jenny about using these beads to create sensory tools. And she quickly responded back, “I’m already on it!”
Elsie also mentioned that her necklace was especially helpful when her wiggly teeth were being stubborn and she was ready for them to fall out! For the launch of this new Sensory collection, Jenny was sweet enough to design a custom “black” necklace since that’s her favorite color and she has worn it every day this first week of school.
What do you want to tell other moms raising a child who feels “big” emotions?
That it’s ok that this is hard to talk about. Loving someone with anxiety can get dark and feel really heavy. It’s natural to want to bury the feelings but talking about it has been really helpful for us. I was so glad to have the opportunity to do this interview. Every time I have had the courage to talk about this subject, I’ve been amazed at the love and support I have received and it helps me know that I’m not the only mom on the planet trying to figure this out. Besides, if you keep it all inside, you’ll end up having a meltdown of your own.
I think as a parent, it’s easy to feel helpless and then become ashamed of that helplessness. Mamas and papas, you are so NOT helpless. Parenting through those tantrums, forging onward in the midst of exhaustion, and searching tirelessly for new ways to help your child find relief takes a serious badass. You have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of. Also, don’t be afraid to seek support yourself. We have big feelings too. Living on high alert for any signs of the next meltdown while navigating the rest of life is TOUGH. Benji and I are in the process of finding a therapist to help address OUR needs and guide us as we support Elsie and each other. So, if you know of any good therapists in Nashville…!?
Most of all, I would encourage parents to recognize the beauty in those “big feelings” their child has. Every once in awhile, you’ll also get to be on the other end of the spectrum and experience their enormous capacity for love and empathy. This morning, out of the blue, while eating cereal Elsie said to me, “Mommy two things. First, I’ll never stop loving you. And second, you love me really good.” Being the recipient of Elsie’s positive big feelings is pretty magical.
Which resources have helped you navigate this parenting adventure?
The website childmind.org has been a valuable resource that helps me not lose my mind daily. A couple of Instagram accounts help me keep things in context too: @peanut, @heymamaco, and @childmindinstitute.
Also, other moms who allow me to talk about Elsie without judging me (or her) are really helpful. And I can’t skate past how much my husband does, I truly have a partner on this journey. When it’s too much for me to handle, he never hesitates to take over and will stick to the same routines we have come up with together in response to intense situations. He is open to finding help and he is honest with both me and Elsie about his feelings. He’s a pretty amazing.
Parenting is never easy but parenting a child with unique needs can be extra never easy. January Moon is proud to support all kinds of parents and children on all kinds of journeys. It takes a village. I’m happy to be a part of Shannon and Elsie’s and I’m happy to be a part of yours!