When I was a child, my mom explained how a neighbor of ours was afraid of buttons. She couldn't select clothing with buttons and found it hard to even say the word. I remember thinking this was a really weird complaint, and wondered what could’ve possibly led to this unusual fear of something so ordinary.
My mom went on to describe an incident where a sewing box had fallen onto the floor while she was having tea with our neighbor. A collection of buttons scattered across the floor and the poor woman experienced a panic attack.
A few years later, the neighbor’s daughter, a friend of mine, shared she was also afraid of buttons. As a young girl, I imagined their phobia was airborne and could be contagious. I just couldn’t understand how someone could be scared of something as innocuous as a button.
Understanding anxiety, myself
Other people's fears can often seem strange if we don’t share them. But what I have learned, along with 40 million other Americans, after facing anxiety at varying degrees, is that the fear is real. I, too, started to develop anxiety in my 30s. At first it was very manageable. It manifested as “nerves,” and appeared as a stomachache before important events or meetings. This progressed until I was feeling unwell before any social interaction, including simple activities like taking a taxi, going out by myself, or simply making a phone call. But the degree of my discomfort was never enough to stop me from going places or socializing. Yet it meant that I was uncomfortable a lot. I now manage these symptoms by giving myself enough time to get ready, doing deep breathing and relaxation exercises, and making sure I get enough sleep.
But since becoming a parent, I have struggled with knowing if I should allow my child to see how much normal daily activities can sometimes stress me out. I have trouble finding the balance between showing my little one that I am only human — that I often find life anxiety-inducing — and presenting a strong, resilient role model for him to imitate.
He is still young enough that I can explain away any unusual behavior on my part by claiming I just don't feel well, or that I need a rest. But as he gets older I’m sure he may start to notice that I’m sometimes frozen by my worries.
I desperately want to help him avoid developing similar anxieties simply because he is mirroring my behavior. But I’m also aware that perhaps it would be healthy for him to view me as a real person and not a superhero. If he ever feels anxious himself, it may help him to know that I, too, have suffered, and I am a sympathetic and understanding confidante to share his feelings with.
Should parents share their anxiety with children?
Although my natural inclination is to withhold my feelings from my son in an attempt to spare him the truth that I sometimes don't have it all together, there is some research to suggest that such an approach may be harmful to me and our relationship.
Laura England, a psychotherapist from Ottawa, Canada, believes that showing our children that we sometimes suffer, but more importantly showing them how we manage our emotions, is “the greatest gift we could give them.” However, she does note that fear, in particular, can be passed down from adult to child. She advises parents to talk about coping mechanisms and self-soothing activities so that children see their parents are active in their own treatment and are not victims of their condition. She suggests parents experiencing anxiety aim to describe the process, and model their conversation in the following way:
“I was feeling scared in the moment about X, and my fear got the better of me. I plan to remind myself next time to breathe deeply to help calm myself down.”
“Parents’ attempts to suppress negative and amplify positive emotions during child care can detract from their well-being and high-quality parent-child bonds,” says England.
You are not alone
Anxiety conditions are among the most common mental illnesses in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety affects every one of us at some point in our lives, and is a normal response to the ups and downs of the daily grind. Our neighbor’s fear of buttons may have seemed peculiar to us, or even a little ridiculous, but the effect it had on her was immense. What’s worse is that mental health issues, including anxiety, can be worsened by the stigma that often accompanies them. By talking to one another, which includes parents being sensitively honest with their children about their feelings, their limitations, and their varying emotions, we can help to break down these communication barriers and create judgment-free spaces where we can all get the help we need to cope with anything life throws at us.
Fiona Tapp is a freelance writer and educator. Her work has been featured on The Washington Post, HuffPost, New York Post, The Week, SheKnows, and others. She is an expert in the field of Pedagogy, a teacher of 13 years, and Master’s degree holder in Education. She writes about a variety of topics including parenting, education, and travel. Fiona is a Brit abroad and when she's not writing, she enjoys thunderstorms and making Play-Doh cars with her toddler. You can find out more at Fionatapp.com or tweet her @fionatappdotcom.