For the past few weeks, Ava's anxiety level has been slowly rising. At the beginning of Grade One, she went through a period of acute fear about being at school all day away from me. We involved the school counselor, who took her on a tour of the school, pointing out the safety features and focusing on how the staff keeps students safe and secure. After that, her fears seemed to abate and she was able to enjoy her days in the classroom.
This time her anxiety seemed centered on the kittens. When we would come home from being out, she searched the house top to bottom to find them, and couldn't relax until she knew they were safe. She began asking questions about them getting stuck places or hurt inside of the house. Last night it reached a fever pitch, and she was crying and worrying when one of the cats was sleeping in a hidden spot and didn't appear when she looked for him.
I was doing the dishes from dinner and Jason was giving William a bath. Because it was the end of the day, and I was tired too, I became frustrated and told her repeatedly to stop freaking out, to calm down, and that the cat would come out when he woke up. I told her she couldn't spend her life in fear, but when I actually stopped washing dishes and looked at her, I recognized that she needed more than this kind of advice.
Our emotions take us hostage sometimes, and when they are as intense as Ava's were last night, they must be confronted. I've learned that this past year. You can't give advice and expect anxiety to disappear. We needed to talk it through. I dried my hands on the dish towel, and asked her to come into the living room with me. We sat down, I breathed in and out a few times to calm down while she was crying, and I waited for some kind of direction.
Within moments, that still, small voice which I have come to rely on for any situation if I will remember to wait for it, came and gave me an idea. Very gently I said to Ava, "I think what is happening is that you are almost 8 years old, and you are realizing that the world is not quite as safe as you thought it was when you were William's age, and you are worried that if you don't control everything, something bad could happen to you or the cats or your family."
If I thought she was crying earlier, when I said this, her dam burst and she sobbed like I've never heard her sob before. Simply naming our worst fears has a healing power inside of it. I could see that she felt better instantly knowing that she wasn't alone. We had a long discussion about how the possibility of loss is intertwined with love, and there is no way to separate the two.
She watched two of her fish die this past year, and grieved both of those losses, and now she loves the kittens with a fierce and protective love, and I could see the fear growing that they might dart out the door and get hurt, or the possibility that they could get hurt in our house and she could lose them. With maturity comes an understanding of some of these concepts that was magically absent before, and spending fifteen minutes talking it through, hearing her fears and responding to each of them in turn, was powerful for both of us.
We can't keep our kids little and innocent forever. Eventually their eyes open to some of the dangers present in the world we live in, and it's our job to give them the best coping skills we can for these fears and worries. I am learning that more information is better than less, and identification is powerful. When Ava heard that I also struggle with specific fears, she felt less alone and understood in a new way.
It felt good to impart some of what I've learned this year; that she is in control of her thoughts and can choose to fear or to have faith that we will all be taken care of and stay safe. I told her what I've been learning at church about peace and joy instead of fear and panic. I showed her my clenched fist and explained that I used to hold on so tight, trying to control everything and everyone, but now I am practicing opening my fist and giving up that control to God, and it's a much more satisfying way to exist in the world.
We'll need many more of these conversations as she grows into an adult, and William will eventually have his turn to ask these questions and receive the best answers that I know how to give. I'll be further along in my journey by the time he asks them, and maybe I'll have better skills to give him, but for last night, I did the best that I could to help my sweet and sensitive young daughter, and for now, that's enough.