When Charlotte was little I used to joke with my husband, Wade saying how could we—two introverted people create such a blithe and gregarious child? At only four years of age our daughter delighted in dancing on stage, was obsessed with putting on ‘shows’ and was utterly fearless.
Tragically, in 2012 Wade suddenly passed away. My little girl became fatherless and our world fell apart. Days blurred into weeks then months and despite missing her Daddy, Charlotte, only five years old appeared to be coping well. She was doing well in her first year of school and enjoying her dance lessons.
As the next few years passed Charlotte continued to be a happy and well-adjusted kid. Eventually I went back to teaching part-time. I also completed an online course in writing picture books, with the goal of one day being a published author. Charlotte developed new interests too and also kept up her dancing. The grey clouds had lifted and life started to feel ‘normal’. Then overnight, without warning, worries hijacked Charlotte’s happiness.
Just days before Christmas she started to worry that she would die and not get to open her presents. Christmas came and went and Charlotte had a new batch of worries—all centred around dying. She was only nine years-old and convinced she’d die of a tumour, cancer or diabetes. Her tummy started to ache. She became clingy—refusing to leave my side. She was teary and stuck on an emotional rollercoaster ride.
After a week of worsening worries and a trip to the ED because Charlotte felt like she couldn’t breathe (her first panic attack) I decided I wasn’t going to wait another minute to get professional help. We went to the GP who organised a mental health care plan for counselling with a child psychologist.
The psychologist determined the trauma of losing her father, and more specifically delayed grief had triggered Charlotte’s anxiety. Only being four at the time of his death, she’d been too young to properly process the loss. And in her mind, if her father had died, she might die too.
Over a period of months Charlotte had regular counselling sessions and we both learned simple but effective anxiety-reducing techniques.
She named her worry Drama Queen to separate the anxiety from herself.
She learned how to belly breathe, to find the evidence that she didn’t need to be worried about dying (she was healthy, ate well and had regular doctor check-ups) and to distract herself from her worry by doing either a physical or calming activity of her choice.
She had a worry box and a time to worry. She would write her worries down and put them in her box. She wasn’t allowed to have her ‘worry time’ before bed. Instead she had a warm bath, a hot milk and would listen to mindfulness meditations.
At 13, Charlotte can recognise when she is becoming anxious. She knows if her tummy is aching and she feels unsettled that her worries are lurking in the back of her mind. When this happens, she uses the three strategies that work best for her: belly breathing; finding the evidence that her worry is irrational; and ignoring her worry by doing an activity of her choice.
Together Charlotte and I learned how to make her worries go away. I’m incredibly proud that for a recent school assessment she chose to write an article on mental health, which she titled ‘The importance of getting mental health help for your child’.