Although it was my daughter that was diagnosed with an anxiety issue at a very young age it has been the whole family that has been trying to understand and cope with the anxiety. We as parents are dealing with the emotional breakdowns, the teachers, the therapists and the doctors. While our son has been dealing with his sister always coming first and her refusal to be a part of his antics and learning.
Impact of Anxiety on a Sibling
My son, Ehren, is only two years older than his sister and he has felt the effects of his sister not being “just like him” for a very long time. Who can blame him really? His life has been put on hold countless times because she’s having a meltdown or he’s had to sit quietly and be patient while she’s had an appointment and I’ve had to console, embrace or physically hold her down while she screamed.
I’ve taken courses with her to combat the anxiety and all the while he’s been the child that has no other choice but to “go with the flow.” The old saying rings true, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” and when she’s in the middle of a panic attack or has been triggered by something it’s her that needs attention and he gets left behind.
A Sibling’s Desire for a Playmate
Our son was 5 years old when Sydney was officially diagnosed with severe anxiety issues. At this point in his life he was eager to have a playmate; someone to discover and learn new things with. Someone who he can even get into mischief with. Instead, he got the exact opposite. By the time he was 4 and she was 2 there were some very clear signs that something was not right. That’s when it got really intense for all of us. At the age of two she:
- did not speak more than three words;
- did not like being held;
- did not respond to her name;
- did not colour;
- cried if you asked her a question;
- did not run or skip or have any kind of favourite toys such as blankets or stuffed animals;
- was very sensitive to loud noises;
- was overwhelmed by crowds and brought to tears;
- would turn away or hold her hands over her eyes when people spoke directly to her; and
- her general demeanour would be categorized as “Unhappy.”
A Sibling’s Feelings & Emotions
This lack of interaction with his sister evoked numerous feelings and emotions over the years. I’ve blogged about many of them. We have never dismissed or made light of any of his outbursts because for him they are all very real. Do any of these sound familiar?
- Anger – “Mom and Dad only have time for my sister and no time for me. I hate her.”
- Resentment – “If I didn’t have a sister things would be much better.”
- Sadness – “Why can’t she be like everyone else? Why won’t she just play hide and seek?”
- Empathy and concern –“ Is she okay? She hasn’t stopped crying?”
- Boredom – “I can’t find anything to do. She won’t play with me because she’s crying and I have nothing to do. Will you play with me?”
- Frustration – “Please, just come with me and we can watch a movie or go outside and just sit outside. Why won’t you come with me?”
- Embarrassment – “Ya, that’s my sister, she’s like that all the time. She cries for no reason!”
A Sibling’s Persistency
What we noticed most about those early years is how much our son truly missed those golden opportunities to have a sister that would learn and play with him. I give him credit though because if there is one thing he has been since day one it is persistent. Despite the frustration and the continued “no” he receives from her he is relentless, sometimes to the point of being detrimental.
There are times when he will ask her over and over and over again to do something like toboggan down a hill at the local park and if she’s not feeling confident enough or if there are too many people around then the pleas for engagement make Sydney feel so scared that she ends up in tears and that is the end of that excursion. We always make sure that he understands that we recognize how hard he’s tried to encourage her and tell him that perhaps she needs a little more time to think about it.
Ehren has been just as important for Sydney’s well-being as my husband and I but often it is hard for him to see that. I think for siblings of children with invisible disabilities like anxiety it is hard to remember that things don’t come so easy for them. Situations that we take for granted and don’t even think about wreak havoc on them and so Sydney needs lots of encouragement both verbal and non-verbal. Sometimes it’s just a quick pat on the back or saying in passing “that was really good” ; quick and to the point in a matter of fact sort of way. So over the years our son has gained lots and lots of experience through much trial and error of just how much to push. But as I mentioned before, he is persistent and it is finally starting to pay off.
Biggest Social Accomplishment!
We’ve all noticed over the last few months that Sydney’s confidence is growing. She’s hit some pretty amazing milestones this year like presenting in front of her class and her 9th birthday party. These have all been wonderful stepping stones to bigger and grander things. Well, it is my pleasure to share with you her biggest social accomplishment yet.
We were at a water park last week for our summer holidays and as you can imagine the sight of the slides were thrilling for our son and rather intimidating for Sydney. The sounds of the water, the people, the splashing and the smell of chlorine are the precise combination of elements for a completely over stimulating and anxiety ridden experience.
As we’ve learned over the years we must push forward. In typical fashion the begging and pleading began, “Hey will you come on that slide with me?” followed by “Come on. It’s not that big. You can do it.” Ehren was convinced that he could talk Sydney into going on a slide with him. So for the rest of the day we listened to his encouragement and begging and just as I was about to say to him, “Why don’t we let her have some time to think about it?” she looked at him, looked at the slides and grabbed his hand and said, “Okay, I’ll go with you…let’s go.”
We could tell by his facial expression that he was a little shocked but he also realized that he needed to go with it and work quickly. So together they raced to get a double inner tube and my husband followed them up to the top in case things didn’t work out as planned. I stayed at the bottom and waited for them. I must admit that I was left standing there with a swirl of emotions for this potentially huge step. I was afraid that she’d panic in the middle of the ride; I was scared that she’d hate it and want to leave and I was thrilled for her because if she did this she’d hopefully feel free.
I wish I had a camera but I will try to paint this picture the best I can. I saw Ehren at the top of the slide showing her how to get in the tube and once she was settled he tucked in behind her. The green light went off and away they flew. A rush of water came towards the opening of the yellow tube and out emerged Ehren with his hands in the air and Sydney with a smile that could light up the night sky. She cupped her face as the last few feet of the water flew up in the air. Once she stepped out of the tube and back on solid ground with more pride and confidence than I have ever seen she exclaimed,
“I am so happy and proud of myself for doing that waterslide that I think my head is going to explode.”
Before I even had a chance to give her a full hug she was back at Ehren’s side asking him, “Can we go on the green one now?” The look on his face was priceless. That’s the kind of friendship with his sister that he has been dying to have for so long.
Anxiety is something the whole family battles each day but we do it together and we are able to all revel in moments and experiences like this that take our breath away and teach us that with the right encouragement, support and understanding we will all be better for it.
“Nerves and butterflies are fine – they’re a physical sign that you’re mentally ready and eager. You have to get the butterflies to fly in formation, that’s the trick.” ~Steve Bull