Ask a therapist: 'I'm worried that I might be the cause of my four-year-old son's anxiety'

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My son has started showing signs of anxiety around many of the same triggers I've had reactions to. He's afraid to go near animals and starts to scream and cry if they get too close to him...


Dear Therapist,

I've always been a fairly level-headed person, but since having a baby, I've found myself becoming much more anxious. I suffered with postpartum depression and anxiety, but even after working through that, I still find myself being very panicky when it comes to my son.

He is now four, and I fret over everything he does — I'm afraid to let him go near anything electrical, anything he could trip over, animals, even foods that he might choke on. I know almost every parent must feel this way, but I can't seem to control my reactions — when he goes near something that I feel is dangerous, my voice rises and I physically pull him back to me, and hold him until my own panic subsides. It's like a panic attack — but taken out on my son.

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Christmas was a nightmare for this — we brought my son to my in-laws, who hosted a huge day with all the cousins and kids. It should have been great fun, for us and for my son, but I couldn't bring myself to let my eyes off him for a minute. I found myself leading him away from games with his cousins that I thought looked risky, and keeping him by my side all day. I've always known that this is something I need to work on, but recently, I've noticed just how big the effect is.

My son has started showing signs of anxiety around many of the same triggers I've had reactions to. He's afraid to go near animals, and starts to scream and cry if they get too close to him. He won't use his cutlery at dinner time, as he seems very worried that he may cut himself. I'm heartbroken at the idea that my own mental health issues are beginning to rub off on my child at such a young age.

How do I begin to get a handle on this, and more importantly, how do I bring my child back to the fearless boy he was just a few months ago?

Dear Anonymous,

I am so sorry to hear that this is your experience right now. It must feel very difficult to move through every day with that level of fear in your life. I want to begin by commending you, first of all on dealing with postpartum depression and anxiety, which is a great burden to bear and next on being a mother who is as in tune with her son as you are. For you to want to deal with these issues on the foot of seeing the impact on your son speaks volumes about your selflessness and your connection with your son.

Next, can we talk about that selflessness a little? When you say that you worked through your postpartum anxiety, I wonder what that work entailed for you? Can you utilise any of that work within your current situation? When I read that you have worked through it but that you still live a life full of such fear, I wonder how much of that work was focused on you as a person and how much was focused on the mother that you needed and wanted to be. Any tool that works with your anxiety is engaging with your fear response.

Anxiety

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Anxiety is the most common face of each of our fear responses. I can see that your life is one full of fear and that is so difficult for you. Again, I am so sorry that this is your experience. When thinking about how you engage with fear, I wonder how you engaged with it before your pregnancy. Have you always held certain beliefs about yourself and the world that trigger a strongly anxious response to daily events? Or is this something that you are dealing with only since you gave birth?

Either way, I strongly encourage you to look at your own upbringing, to uncover where and how you gained the beliefs that fuel your fears in this way. I think that these are issues that are best dealt with in therapy and I encourage you to find a therapist that you can connect with and begin this process. It sounds to me that you are holding some fundamental beliefs about your abilities as an adult and your capacity to shield your son from danger. This belief, that you are responsible for his physical safety at all times, sounds deep-rooted and perhaps comes from a place of trauma.

Was your safety compromised at some point in the past? Is there trauma within you that is bubbling to the surface under the guise of keeping your son safe? Dealing with these questions needs time and compassion. You need to start caring for yourself as much as you care for your son. Not only will it be the best way for him to deal with his fears but you, as a person, are worthy of a life that has only proportionate fear and a full capacity to deal with it. Next, I am intrigued that most of your fears centre around your son’s physical safety. I wonder about what beliefs you are holding about this.

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Does it all fundamentally return to your fear of his being harmed, or worse, of his dying? Or is this more a piece around your culpability? Are you seeking reassurance about your capability as a parent or are you so filled with overwhelming love for him that you cannot bear for him to ever feel pain or be in danger?

These are issues that you can only solve within yourself, though again, a compassionate ear will certainly help. Finally, I strongly commend you for looking at your own mental health as a response to your child’s anxiety. You have focused on his physical safety for so long and I am heartened to hear that you are as focused on his emotional health also. Again, I think that your fear response, so heightened on a daily basis, will only be appeased with uncovering work in a supportive environment.

Your son will very possibly deal with his anxieties easily once he sees your lived example. If you find, after a few months of your work, that he is still as anxious as before, some short term work with a good child therapist will arm him with all the tools that he needs to navigate his own fear response in a healthy way. Your son is lucky to have a mother like you.

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You are worthy of a life that does not cause you to freeze in fear on a daily basis. Both of these beliefs are ones that I would love you to take on board immediately. The very best of luck to you and take care.

Lorraine Hackett is a therapist with MyMind. If you have a concern that you'd like to share with a therapist, email MyMind in confidence at [email protected]

MyMind provides affordable counselling and psychotherapy online or face-to-face in their Dublin, Cork and Limerick centres in over 15 languages. Visit www.MyMind.org to book an appointment or call 076 680 1060

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