As part of Speak Up for Kids, an initiative led by Child Mind Institute to provide the public with information about children’s mental health, we will be running a series of stories about families whose children have been diagnosed with mental health conditions.
For most of her life, Franny had been a typical kid. She was quiet and sensitive, but also sunny, well-liked and energetic. She thrived in school. Then things changed. The middleschooler began having nightmares and eventually completely withdrew. Here, her mom, Edie, shares how she and her husband worked to get Franny help for the anxiety disorder uprooting her life, and "the amazing resilience that good treatment can reveal in very troubled kids."
The Moment We Knew
Franny began to exhibit severe anxiety issues in anticipation of a change of school that was due to start in 7th grade. She loved her school, but we decided to move her to a larger one that offered a broader horizon and where we thought she would thrive. We told her in the spring.
She started having dreams about the new school almost immediately, and her issues accelerated through the summer. She was talking, and it seemed she couldn't stop talking, about being anxious about school. She went to camp and she couldn't function. She told us she was taking showers just so she could [be alone] and cry. Franny was holding herself together on the surface, but there was a level of anxiety that was pulling the foundation out from under the house.
Once school began, she had a very, very difficult time adjusting and left after a month. She went back to the old school and felt better for about a week, then she completely withdrew. She ended up on a medical leave from December through the end of the year.
Life With Anxiety
Her anxieties would really mount at night. It was like having a little baby again that you can't put down. You wonder if you should Ferberize or stay with her. You go in and out of the bedroom every 15 minutes for three hours each night; reading; singing; meditating -- we tried every meditation tape for teens. Then you end up standing in the Duane Reade, asking the pharmacist, "What sleep aids are appropriate for 12 year olds?" And you think, "How did I end up here? What am I doing wrong?"
Franny drew this image right around the time she started at her new school. It reads, "Social anxiety/pressure at it's [sic] BEST."
Our Care Map
If I had read this article as a parent two years ago, I would have wanted to be reminded that good care -- and it is ongoing care -- means you need to have the right person or people, both in terms of the fit with your child and philosophy of care. You need the right assessment, and then you need the right treatment. And all of those can involve trial and error. You can get combinations of, say, the right person but the wrong treatment.
It took us about four months to get it right. The best treatment approach [for Franny] was cognitive behavioral therapy, but even after we figured that out, finding the right person took time.
The right assessment was also really important for us. I never thought I had the type of child who would need the type of questionnaire we filled out. We must have faxed back 28 pages of answers to questions like, "Did your child hurt animals as a kid?"
When we talked through the results -- we worked with the Child Mind Institute -- they said "OK, we've got some depression, some anxiety and panic issues that are off the chart." I recognized every element in Franny and I thought, "Finally. At least we're talking the right language here."
Our Darkest Moment
There was a patch when Franny couldn't leave the apartment; she couldn't stand to be in public; she couldn't stand to have people look at her. She couldn't walk in the park, she would shy away from the trees and bushes. Every appointment, we'd take this trembling kid and stuff her into a cab. Occasionally on the way back we'd say, "Can we walk a block?" She'd be about four feet behind, trembling. I don't think she'd be at all embarrassed for me to share that, she remembers how helpless she felt.
That was an extreme time, and I think there were moments when she felt like her parents had absolutely nothing to offer her any more. It's terrible to watch your child hurt and feel you can't help.
What I Wish We'd Known
I think schools are not that well prepared, and I think it is hard for educators, administrators and even some guidance counselors to quickly recognize the difference between someone who is having regular, middle school fears or homesickness and something this severe. No one said to me, "These are red flags. Get an assessment now."
As parents, we were trying to be proactive, but we could have used a push.
Where We're At
Franny sees a therapist weekly and a psychiatrist every few months, mostly just to check in.
She has been trying new things at her new school. She went on a group youth service learning trip, which meant getting on a plane with a school group, and this for a kid who couldn't take a bus across town a year and a half ago. She's entered in science competitions; she's trying sports.
There have been some nights before [she tries something new] when we've said, "Oh my gosh, are we going here again?" She has had some ups and downs, but so far she has met every challenge. Franny is really proud of herself. She knows how much she has done. We have a healthy, happy daughter trying new things.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.