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I Can't Teach My Preschooler to Manage Her Anxiety Until I Learn to Manage Mine

Photograph by Twenty20

“I’m so stressed out,” my daughter said to me last month, following it up with a sigh and burying her head in her hands.

This particular instance was a melodramatic performance, a reenactment for the sake of getting a reaction from me. It may have been a joke, but it hit me hard. It bothered me, knowing she had learned that phrase from me.

She's a typical preschooler with a strong personality and some developmentally appropriate anxiety. Transitions are hard. A break from our routine is upsetting. It’s hard not to get the things she wants. You know, all things you would expect from a four-year-old every now and then.

It worried me at first, but the more time I spend with other moms who have kids the same age, I realize this comes with the age. I know that, as her brain develops, she'll learn to process the situations that make her anxious. She'll develop coping skills for difficult emotions.

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What worries me more is my struggle to model healthy ways to deal with anxiety in front of her. The truth is, these days my daughter and I seem to be learning the same lesson. While she is struggling with anxiety over new things, I’m drowning in the day-to-day demands of working from home as a mom of three.

So, when I try to teach my daughter how to process through the emotions she is feeling, all of my efforts seem to be falling flat. In the end, all she does is mimic what she sees from me everyday. I can say one thing, but my actions speak louder.

Honestly, these are the struggles that make me feel like I’m not cut out to be a mom or that I made a mistake becoming a mom at such a young age. Not because I don’t think my kids are the best thing that ever happened to me, but because I never feel sure I am the best mom I can be.

It leaves me looking into the eyes of a four-year-old who's looking right back at me, watching for a cue, waiting for a signal of what we do next when things aren’t going our way.

I find myself wondering what would be different if I had waited a little longer. What if I had taken the time to work through my stuff? It's not hard to feel like an older me would be a more put together me, a less worried me, a me that would have learned how to manage family and work and home without feeling anxiety that feels like the weight of a hundred bricks on my chest.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t wait to become a mom until I worked through my baggage. I am a mom now, at 27, with three kids under five and a new job and a whole lot of debt and responsibility to worry about. It doesn’t really matter how different things would be if I saw my first set of pink lines on a pregnancy test at 31 instead of 21, because that's not the life I chose.

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So that leaves me here, forced to make a move towards a better me so I can be a better mom. That leaves me trying to work through whatever is causing all of this anxiety for the sake of the little people who run around my feet all day. It leaves me trying to find better coping skills than slamming the washer lid four or five times to blow off some steam, or spiraling out of control into a pool of tears when it’s time to make dinner and I need to return a couple emails and my youngest is fully committed to the drama of the witching hour.

It leaves me looking into the eyes of a four-year-old who's looking right back at me, watching for a cue, waiting for a signal of what we do next when things aren’t going our way. She’s waiting for answers about a world that feels like an uncertain place and because of that, I’ve got to figure it out myself before I can show her the way. Because of her, I’m determined to find a better way to live my life with anxiety.

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