Hands up if you or anyone in your family has had an unusual amount of anxiety in the past twelve months. I have suffered with anxiety and mild depression for many years. When my son was 18 months old, I suffered a panic attack in Boston’s Faneuil Hall. It was a wake-up call for how I feel about crowds. My nine-year-old is likewise anxious about a lot of things. Fed by his ADHD, many of his anxious thoughts can easily consume him. May is National Mental Health Awareness month, and I find myself looking back over the year at the many things that have helped us through.
We have many tools to help us deal with our familial levels of anxiety. My son has an absolutely amazing guidance counselor at his elementary school. Prior to the pandemic she would meet with him every week; they would talk and play games to build up his toolkit. She has continued to do this with him through Zoom while he has been doing virtual school. On Monday mornings she checks in with him and helps him identify what his body is telling him about his feelings.
He has a blankie that he has had from birth, that comforts him no end; he calls it Blankie. When he was small we came across a pair of mittens at a craft fair, made from identical yarn. So I scoured Etsy and found the yarn. He now has the mittens, a hat, a stuffed animal, and even pocket blankies out of the same yarn. A pocket blankie is just a three inch granny square made of the same yarn that Blankie is made out of. In first grade he would keep it in his pocket at school and rub it when he started feeling antsy. It’s portable for times when he can’t bring Blankie.
Like everything in our lives, we also have a book for that. In the case of his anxieties, we have many books for that. Some have been in use since well before the pandemic, some since well before his ADHD diagnosis, and some we found this year for the special circumstances we find ourselves in.
To begin with, I want all my kids to know that they are loved. That action, inaction, behavior, words, nothing can change that. For us these two books have been key. They are board books and so intended for younglings, but the emotion and classic rhyming scheme are ageless.
Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman. Her most famous book is probably On the Night You Were Born, but it is Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You that has brought us comfort on hard days, and ended us with night time cuddles and assurance. When we read it, he traces the movement of the wind with his fingers as the love follows the boy from page to page. He will regularly ask for “My love book,” and I know what he needs. Many of the lines in this book I know by heart and can whisper in his ear when we are out and about and I notice him starting to get panicky. I especially love her emphasis on the fact that a child can think they’ve been bad, not that they have been.
And if someday you’re lonely,
or someday you’re sad,
or you strike out at baseball,
or think you’ve been bad…
just lift up your face, feel the wind in your hair.
That’s me, my sweet baby, my love is right there.
You Are My I Love You by Maryann Cusimano Love and Satomi Ichikawa. This book depicts one day in the life of a parent and child. A day that we can all recognize, full of smiles, messes, and neverending energy. The parent tells the child what each is to the other. They are each other’s comfort, but also each other’s adventure. You almost want to end it with “I love you 3000.”
I am your quiet place; you are my wild.
I am your favorite book; you are my new lines.
Our family have been Mo Willems fans for a long time now. When he did his lunchtime doodles at the start of the pandemic, we watched and drew avidly every day. His time was a true gift to thousands of suddenly homeschooling parents. Back before kindergarten, before hundreds of tantrums, thousands of tears, millions of hugs, we leaned heavily on the Elephant and Piggie series. These books so appropriately depict how to handle emotions, and that all emotions are valid. Throughout the stories they have an inclusive, take-a-breath quality that I want my kids to come naturally to. When he was diagnosed with ADHD, we leaned in further to these two friends, who deal with anger and anxiety, as much as playing ball and eating ice cream. Of particular use have been Today I Will Fly, and A Big Guy Took My Ball. Even as an adult I find myself reading My New Friend Is So Fun to remind me that FOMO is real and very bad for my health. When there’s a children’s book about how you feel as an adult, it’s probably time for some reflection.
In the past year we needed more tools in our toolbox, and so we turned to a favorite brand from my childhood. Usborne books have a lot of great titles, but their series on worry is engaging and comforting. We have used The UnWorry Book this past year, and keep it on our desk along with the paper and glue sticks. An activity book full of things to calm you down, with tactile places to put your worries. You can make a mood grid, or simply do a word search where you are looking for words like “calm,” “relax,” and “rest.” My son’s favorite page encourages you to scribble as hard as you can: it’s exceptionally satisfying when he is feeling frustrated with something.
Also new to us this year is My Monster and Me by Nadiya Hussein of British Bake Off fame. Nadia has suffered from anxiety and insecurity her whole life ,and in this picture book turns that anxiety into a monster that goes with the child everywhere. By the end of the book you learn how to deal with your anxiety monster, but it’s not an “all’s better” ending. The monster diminishes, it becomes something you can handle, it becomes something you can deal with. She does not mislead you into thinking it will go away, that there is a magical cure, but that we can all learn how to interact with our monster, so that it doesn’t rule over us. Bookshop.Org has a list of other recommended picture books for mental health awareness month.
With the lack of classmates at home, we have also leaned into each other to ease our anxieties. Sometimes all my son needs is to use me as a backrest instead of the couch. Physical presence and touch have helped keep him calm, when the school’s preferred schooling app is failing him. He sees a homeroom teacher for barely ten minutes a day, but he has pen pals in England, Colorado, and just down the street. That’s not to say that my youngest son is the only one in need; we have all benefited from the closeness to each other this year, and our annual hug quota has gone through the roof. This year may be the reason I gained a whole extra year of cuddles from my pre-teen. We just need the comfort of those loving arms.
While we have all fallen more into the “food as comfort” bucket than those who have exercised away their stress, we have also picked up some new refreshing habits. We all love doing yoga, mostly thanks to Cosmic Kids Yoga, though the practice has diminished as the world starts returning to normal. My first grader has perfected his burpees, thanks to a wonderful gym teacher. And now that the weather has taken a better turn, the bikes have come out. We live on a peaceful street in rural Maine, where a walk down the street with little kids on bikes yields numerous bird sightings, a dozen fresh eggs from a neighbor, and a visit to the cow at the farm. Just getting out and stretching in the neighborhood is an instant anxiety reducer. To be fair, I felt the same when we lived in the city and within walking distance of three used bookstores and a Starbucks.
We jumped on the Animal Crossing bandwagon last Spring, and cultivating an island as a family got us through the early days of quarantine. Now it is just something that we enjoy doing together on rainy days, or on mornings when the littlest wakes us all up at 4:30am.
For my first grader we have found a “toy” that satisfies him in so many ways. It scratches the itch that makes him want to pick at everything, it calms him down by providing a rhythm, and it gives his hands something to do. In our house we call them his “poppy games,” though technically they are called “Push Pop Bubble Popping Sensory Pop It Fidget Toy Games,” and he is never without one.
It started a few years back, when we found Last Mouse Lost at All About Games in Belfast Maine. It wasn’t long before he loved it so much that we purchased Go Bong. We quickly stopped playing the actual games, but he never stopped popping. We have now gone through three Go Bong poppy games, as eventually his finger goes through one of the poppers. In the past year, maybe because of their effectiveness against anxiety, these games have started appearing everywhere. We now have them in Lobster and Crab shapes, Glow in the Dark, an Alphabet game, and we have a puzzle piece one on the way. You can get them as keychains, and pencil toppers. Whereas previously we had to order them online or make the two-hour drive to Belfast, you can now find them in almost every store, most of the time near the register. My son is having a hard time not wanting all of them.
Not all poppy games are created equal, however. Despite having worn through several, Go Bong remains his favorite type, the shape and texture most appeal to him, and considering he uses it everyday for several hours, I am not put off by having to replace it. It is extremely durable; it just gets used a lot. At the moment the second favorite is the Glow in the Dark poppy game we got from Zulily. It is definitely the sturdiest one we have, I assume because the luminescent material needs to be thicker. It took him a while to get used to the thickness, but now it goes everywhere with him. The second sturdiest would be the Alphabet game that we found in Target. He likes that there is something “printed” on each bubble, but it does make him want to do the pops in a specific way that is not necessarily of his choosing. I have recommended these games, ranging in price from $6 to $20, to everyone who has a child with any level of anxiety. His beloved guidance counselor now has some in her office as well. The touch of the poppers, the sound they make, the repetitiveness, each plays a part in soothing his racing soul and has been a daily tool in this world we find ourselves in.
All of these things have been excellent, but without a doubt we have found our biggest stress reliever to be art. Whether watching Mo Willems, or JJK, and learning how to draw, or scribbling our own creations. Whether making perler bead art, or using my endless scrapbook supplies to create anything we can imagine. Whether crocheting, or making felt gnomes, or learning how to make all kinds of origami-esque structures, we have all felt the artistic urge this year, and found it to be a great way to de-stress.
Whether mum needs a break from real life, or a first grader needs a creative interlude during an awful testing cycle sent by the school, we have not ceased to create for over a year. My Ikea cart quickly became “the mama school cart,” and is full of anything and everything we might need. This weekend when my five-year-old put a cup of water on the table, I asked if she was thirsty and she just grinned at me. She pulled out her magical painting books, and just went to town. She knew where everything was, she knew what she wanted to do, and all of a sudden our house is peaceful and full of even more art.
As something else entirely becomes our new normal, I know we have gleaned some new skills, and learned some things about ourselves that will serve us well in the future. There’s a lot to be said for paying attention, and it’s true. I find that just by paying attention to the way we have conducted ourselves this year, I feel more equipped to face whatever comes next.