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The One Thing I Did That Eased My Daughter's Anxiety

"I don't want to go to school today," my 6-year-old daughter, affectionately known around these parts as Petunia, said to me this morning with fat tears clinging precariously to her eyelashes.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"I hurt my foot in gymnastics yesterday and everyone will laugh at me for walking funny today," she said.

"Do you ever laugh at people for how they walk?"

"No, but I know everyone will laugh at me."

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I sighed. I recognized her mood as one for which little could be done—or at least that was true at one time. Over the years I had searched unsuccessfully for magic words or a cure-all for her erratic fits of anxiety that turned my sassy, confident, whip-smart, hilarious, clever and lovely little girl into a tangled mess of angst and insecurity. Whether her hair was braided a 1/4 of an inch too high, or she was concerned the pizza being served might have the cheese she doesn't like (which is all cheeses), without warning, she would turned from a lovely spring day into a we-need-to-evacuate-she's-going-to-blow Category-5 hurricane.

My husband and I read books and scientific studies and talked to teachers, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. She'd go through a month or two when all was well and good, and then we'd go through a spell of the same length where it was torture for all of us. We waffled from thinking it was just age-appropriate quirks to thinking she had some variety of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Somewhere in the three-block walk, though, something happened—to me, not to Petunia.

The latter was ruled out, however, because it never came out at school—her teachers all said she's a leader among her classmates with an emphasis on being kind and polite. She excels at reading, art, foreign language, music and drama (natch). But at home, when it's bad, it's bad. She melted down at a pace that would have climate change experts on highest alert.

This winter, her therapist brought me in at the end of one of their sessions and said they talked about what it means to have a flexible mind, and how people with flexible minds are happier than those with inflexible ones. As we walked home, Petunia danced around, her wheels turning at the idea that she could make her mind bend like her body in gymnastics class. The thought of having the tools to be happier made her happier.

I smiled at her optimism, even if I also secretly rolled my eyes at yet another in a series of tricks we would attempt to de-stress her. They always work while she's already composed, and then promptly disintegrate at the precise moment she morphs from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.

Somewhere in the three-block walk, though, something happened—to me, not to Petunia. I realized she wasn't the only one who needed to be more flexible. I did, too. I'm a firm believer in being a mom of my word. If I say time out, no screen time or lights out, there's no wiggle room. You give them an inch, they take over the house. I have a lot of anxiety, too, which I manage by carefully, painfully and specifically controlling my surroundings. Petunia has inherited my need for order, and I finally recognized myself in her; whatever the circumstances, she becomes distressed when her feeling of order slips away.

Having some empathy for her made me stop reacting with only frustration.

Through her cognitive behavioral therapy, I learned that I need to be more willing to adjust, bend and move on. When I tell her "no," Petunia often responds now by saying, "OK. Then when?" She also started asking for second chances, and I started to give them to her. Not all the time, but frequently enough so that she can stop worrying too much that she'll never get to do anything good ever again. By showing her how I can adjust, she has gone out of her way to do the same. She knows she's doing it, she knows I know she's doing it, and she's delighted and proud.

Having some empathy for her made me stop reacting with only frustration. I try to anticipate what and when she feels she's losing, and ease her mind by letting her know through example that nothing is permanent. She's learning to gain back her control even if it's just by figuring out when that will be possible.

I never could fix everything and I still can't. I can't promise her no one will laugh at her limp, but I can acknowledge her feelings and re-direct her focus.

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"I think once you're up for a few minutes and walking around, your foot won't hurt as much. If not, maybe tell your teacher once you get to school that you need to rest at recess."

"OK, I'll try that," Petunia sniffed.

Empathy and flexibility don't solve everything, but what they do is give us both the tools we need to figure out how to fend off the anxiety that in the past rendered us both firmly intractable and utterly miserable.

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