Monday, March 3, 2014

Missing the Signs of Stress and Anxiety in My Pre-School Child: Part 2

(For those of you just joining us, the first part of this particular child anxiety and stress story started with my last post, so make sure you read that one first!)

            Despite prayer and plenty of self-talk, my mother worry gene remained engaged in high-alert as Parker (now four years old) and I prepared for the sleep apnea study at the Children’s Hospital in San Diego, where he’d be embellished with sensors from head to toes. On a beautiful Thursday evening, he and I made the forty-five minute drive to the new hospital. Chris met us there after work for the introduction and to give a brief, “’at a boy” pep talk to Parker. Then he went home to bed. I would remain with Parker for the eight-hour test.
            The twinkling stars on the ceiling of the hospital’s lobby might have mesmerized Parker for a brief moment, but they didn’t do much to smooth my raw edges. Even Parker seemed unconvinced; the suspicious look engraved on his face told me that even he knew the pretty fa├žade had to be a mantle for mysterious, frightening things awaiting him in the inner sanctums.   
            After Parker was entertained with an in-house video and mandatory repertoire of mommy-and-son bedtime tunes, I retired to what the hospital had generously described as a cot, (actually more a minimally reclining, padding-free chair), and eyeballed my son dressed in his miniature hospital jammies and the monitors for nearly eight hours. A technician observed the incoming data while filming his movements from the adjacent room. This night, someone else got to be the notebook-keeper.
            In the middle of this procedure, Parker coughed and choked, beautifully reproducing his worrisome symptoms, then realized—in horror—that he’d soaked the bed. I don’t need to describe the scene for you to imagine the challenge of unhooking the leads and escorting a tearful little boy into the cold, sterile atmosphere of a hospital bathroom to change his clothes, soothe his broken spirit and then reattach him for the remainder of the test.
            To coax him back to sleep, I joined him in bed, lulling him with more songs and caresses. I also gave him the nasal allergy medications his pediatrician had prescribed while awaiting the diagnosis. I didn’t give it to him at the onset, because I wanted them to see exactly what happened without medication influencing the results.
            The songs or caresses scored, because—thankfully— he returned to a comfortable sleep. Until four o’clock in the morning when the technician announced the test over. No languishing around the room. No allowing Parker to finish his sweet dreams. We were ushered around quickly to pack our bags, dress and vacate. The hospital register was ringing, and the insurance company had punched a pre-set time clock. Any extra seconds would be out-of-pocket ones. I thought I heard the distinctive sound of a door being slammed behind us as we left. Luckily we moved fast enough not to be bounced by it.
            For a treat, I took Parker, and the obligatory stuffed bear the hospital had given him, out to breakfast. He wasn’t particularly interested in sharing the Grand Slam meal I selected, but I needed the coffee for the toothpicks-in-the-eyes, hour drive home. Finally, we ascended the I-15 on-ramp amidst a beautiful California sunrise. The test was complete. Now the waiting came began.
            But that sunrise signaled such hope and promise that fear finally escaped me. Another glorious morning had begun.
            We all needed the hope it represented.


            The results arrived soon after, along with a visit to the pulmonary specialist who pronounced Parker to be just fine, and who said my son probably had mucous draining into his throat as the result of allergies, causing him to gag and sit up to clear his airway. The treatment seemed relatively simple: a continuation of nasal sprays and an admonition to be on the alert for those things that irritated his sinuses, including the grass he relished rolling around on.
            My worry gene hadn’t yet relaxed to normal, so I took the cautious route and kept him in our bedroom. It took more than a year of successful treatment, and my continual, assessing watch, to finally be satisfied that Parker would truly be safe in his own room at night—without me.

            Along with the physical problems, though, Parker started exhibiting insecurity and separation anxiety whenever I left him at preschool or at home with Chris.
            It began eleven months after Victoria’s death, that he started resisting my leaving him at the preschool he’d been attending two to three mornings a week since he was two. He would ask often, and nervously, where I was going. Did I have to go to the doctor? Would I be okay? Would I come back to get him? He always reiterated strongly, but without tears, that he was concerned about me and wanted to be with me. That he did not want me left alone.
            One evening, when I returned home after shopping—and well after Parker had gone to bed—Chris told me Parker had questioned him repeatedly during my absence about where I was going and if I’d return. Over and over he questioned Chris about whether I was bleeding again, and if I needed to go to the hospital. It suddenly became apparent to Chris and me that our young son was suffering from stress, fear and anxiety. Problems we hadn’t really considered possible in such a small child.
            Repeated verbal assurances from us didn’t alleviate Parker’s anxiety. We couldn’t reason it out him. He needed some concrete action, some life changes.
            And it was Parker who initiated them.
            He stopped outside the preschool door one morning, turned to look into my eyes with all of the seriousness of an earnest four-year-old, and announced with a sigh of resignation and apparent fatigue, “Mom, I need a vacation.”
            I chomped my lip and stifled a snicker. He no longer wanted to attend preschool. Maybe he never did really want to attend, I thought. What was clear now, though, was that he wanted to be with me, all of the time. And he was expressing it in the most diplomatic, constructive, effective way he knew how.
            I kneeled to his eye level and donned my most serious expression.
            How long of a vacation do you think you need?” I asked him, combatting another smile.
            “Oh…about five months,” he responded with a tilt of his blond head accented with a shrug and flip of his hands. Careful. Don’t laugh at him, Andrea! I chastised myself.
            “Okay,” I agreed. “Beginning next month, you may go on vacation!” His blue eyes glittered. Relief saturated his face and body. He stood up taller, satisfied. Hopeful.
            His idea of a vacation was to pile in the car and escape to unknown, exciting places, so his spirits were a bit dampened when informed that he wouldn’t be going anywhere special; that his vacation, for the most part, would be spent at home. Even in his disappointment, he appeared immensely relieved that his sojourn to preschool would soon be curtailed, and he would be alone with me throughout the day—for the next five months.
            When he quit preschool, his relentless questions about my health continued for several weeks, then stopped. He suddenly seemed so secure and content—as long as we were together, and I was taking care of him. Until that time, I hadn’t fully appreciated how much he needed me.
            In the midst of his emerging independence and controlled veneer, I had failed to remember just how young, vulnerable and fragile he was. I had been profoundly mistaken: He wasn’t really “my little man” at all, as I often called him.
            He was a vulnerable little boy—hovering somewhere between toddler and child—only moments in time beyond infancy. Still defenseless and reliant.
            The realization hit me like a face slap. Remorse bruised my heart.
            So, in April of 1994, exactly one year after his baby sister’s death, Parker and I started concentrating again on that tender, mother-son, parent-child relationship. We played, we laughed, we hugged. We laid firm foundation blocks of security.
            We worked seriously on love and priceless family relationships.
            And I was reminded how children usually spell love. T-i-m-e.


NEXT WEEK: Was it now time to start thinking seriously about trying again to have another child? Could we, should we try? When—how—would we know?

Until next week,

Thanks for joining me!



For those of you interested in what recent studies show regarding stress in children—from pregnancy through childhood—read this valuable article, "How Parents' Stress Can Hurt a Child, From the Inside Out," by Alice G. Walton.

And here's a great post from Meg Villanueva discussing steps to conquer fear. Join her on her blog: Pebbles Along the Path
Pebbles Along the Path: Fear and worry: Subdue and Conquer