Helping one of my own children overcome anxiety was one of the reason I decided to begin teaching others how to teach and learn mindfulness.
My fifth child was delivered via caesarean. After over 10 hours of labour I was rushed into an emergency caesarean due to complications. When he was born he was left with his father for hours, while I was in recovery. And I was told later, that no one could comfort him. So, his entry into this world was followed by hours of uncontrollable crying and stress. This triggered strong anxiety within him, that would last for another 5 or so years.
When we finally met he clung to me like a little koala. If fact, I nick named him Koaly. He literally spent most of this time attached to me in a baby joborn. Even when I was reading or working around the house, he was attached, which really helped him feel secure, content and happy. And he was a very happy baby, always smiling and laughing…as long as I was right there. But, still his anxiety would get the better of him at times. And sadly, the little darling suffered from hallucinations whenever he had a high fever (under the influence of the drug Nurofen) and would literally see scary figures and experience walls moving and unfortunately we didn’t know this was happening until he was old enough to speak. Fortunately, he wasn’t sick too often and he rarely allowed us to administer drugs to control his fever. By age three he never took Nurofen again!
Even almost 3 years of breast feeding and having him always with me, didn’t relieve him of his anxiety. As he grew, I noticed he was very shy around others and would become anxious quiet easily. So when he was ready to start school at age 5, I enrolled him in the local Montessori school, just to ensure his social and emotional development was going to continue to be developed in a nurturing environment. It was wonderful to be able to only need to leave him for 3 hours a day, until he was ready to stay longer.
He was the brightest boy in the class and every teachers favourite. And the love and care he received from his first teachers at Montessori really helped him to start to come out of his shell. Still, I could see he needed to build more resilience. So I decided the best way to do that was through teaching him about the human mind and why people think the way they do. We both enjoyed studying people and chat about people’s behaviour (and still do it through watching reality TV) . Each day after school he would tell me about his day and most of the conversations were about what the other children did – in detail. He also had an innate moral compass and this caused him to also become quite judgemental…which also lead to teaching him how to apply compassion to our thinking and try to resist dobbing on all the children. Before long, to help him cultivate his thinking style, we also got into the routine of him having a mention 5 good things about his day before he began filling me in with all the other details.
He was growing to be a very capable self-learner and his socioemotional intelligence was gaining so much ground that after two years of Montessori and moving into the next stage, he told me that the school was no longer good for him because it wasn’t providing him with enough structure (he also had a lot of other complaints about his new teacher). After asking the principle was it possible to give him more structure (since he was raised in a very structured environment before attending Montessori, due to being born when I was half way through my university studies) I was told that just isn’t the Montessori way.
I urged him to continue for one more year, but found him in tears on the way home, telling me stories of his teacher not giving him the repeated lessons he felt he needed to gasp new topics at the rate he wanted to (and we both knew he was a jumper and needed repetition for learning certain topics). And after a parent observation sit in session and watching most of the children daydreaming (role modeled through the teacher), I realised he was right and it was time to move him into a more structured environment, where children weren’t bored, day dreaming and struggling to find things to.
So, I enrolled him in the local Catholic school and he love it and continued to thrive, That was, until the following year when he had to deal with a ‘screaming’ teacher. I was told by the other parents and children that she wasn’t really a ‘screamer’, she just raised her voice a lot and was a little tougher on the kids towards producing results. However, in my sons mind (or perception of reality), she was a ‘screamer’! Although, she never ever raised her voice at my son. However, he saw that at times, she got it wrong and raised her voice at a child without due cause, or simply because she wanted the child to hurry up and this cause anxiety within my son, because he felt it was only a matter of time before she did the same to him. And he was pretty much the only child that she never raised her voice at.
I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake by listening to him and removing him from Montessori. He was around 7 years old by now, and while is was doing quite well, I was feeling that I still needed to do more for him to help him deal with anxiety. That’s when I came up with a brainstorm and decided we would start a project together, of breeding pedigree mini lop rabbits. We purchases a few baby rabbits and grew them up and began breeding, never allowing the herd to reach more than 7. I also purchased (saved) another quality adult female that was a bit more anxious, due to living her first two years in a small box in a shed full of other rabbits in small boxes and not having much human contact.
Through studying the behaviour of our rabbits he learned how anxiety wasn’t always trigger by the outer environment, but more so, the inner environment. We cultivated two lines, one was just your normal everyday playful rabbits (that could get a little anxious) and the other was a much more docile line. And we spend a lot of time – just watching them and chatting about them. It was a wonderful bonding experience and also an opportunity to both learn about colour genetics in order breed the colours we wanted. I wanted to create a blue otter. He wanted to create a Charlie.
In a very short period of time he was able to conceptualise how our own thinking created our reality. As we watched the rabbits interact within their environment he could clearly see that the same environment produced different effects within each rabbit. This was best observed during their play time. Particularly though one of our girls, that preferred to not even come out and play.
Each day we allowed the rabbits to roam around in their own little yard areas. When the rabbits heard certain bird calls, some weren’t affected, while others would scurry back into their homes. Some rabbits enjoyed cuddle time, while some preferred less handling. Some rabbits were extremely affectionate and would ran up for their cuddles, while other had to be caught. And as the different females became pregnant we also noticed how their hormones also affected their behaviour.
Some females became quite aggressive, one would even run at me and attack me for entering her space (she was never bred again and was re-homed). Even the more docile females had moments when they lunged forward to bite me when I put my hand in their cages – through a certain period of their pregnancies. Then after giving birth they would completely return to their normal selves.
Overall, within the three years that we spent breeding our mini lops my son had fully conceptualised how anxiety, or behaviour in general really was an inside job. And although the outer environment could trigger anxious moments, the degree of effect usually always came down to the personality and disposition of the rabbit, more so than the outer environment.
From this learning experience my son was able to ‘check in’ with himself, within the class room, or elsewhere and notice what he was feeling and thinking and learn to use his breath training, as a way to reduce his reactivity. And since throughout our breeding project he was also educated on the fact that, while we are also animals, we aren’t the same as animals because we have higher order thinking skills that allow us to purposefully cultivate our thinking, he was able to always apply his mindfulness in situations where he felt stressed, by simply returning to his breath and then cultivate better ways of thinking. He also learned to use mantras, or prayer as internal dialogue to deal with stressful situations. He also learned that he was capable of thinking through situations in a much more positive frame of mind. We also occasionally spend time developing his resilience through play acting stressful scenarios so he could use critical thinking through a cognitive behaviour therapy understanding of testing and assessing the reality of the situation, or his thoughts about the situation.
Now, as a teenager, he is so resilient that I feel that maybe he should be a little more fazed by particular situations. He gets a little too big for his boots at times and can be very pushy and determined to get his own way! However, I know it’s such a blessing to watch him display his confident demeanour over the timid little one that he once was. And fortunately, I too enjoy getting my own way and am very capable of applying a loving hierarchy within our relationship.
I hope this blog has brought you a little more understanding towards creating ways of building social and emotional intelligence and resilience within children with anxiety. And while you may not all be rushing out the door to purchase a bunch of rabbits (since the cleaning side of it is ridiculously labour intensive), you can still just have plenty of chats with your child about anxiety, or anxiety within animals, and internal and external environmental triggers - as a way of fostering understanding for building resilience. Additionally, developing a deep sense of gratitude is also a wonderful way to build resilience against feelings and thoughts of stress or anxiety. Prayer can also have a powerful impact within a young child’s mind.
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Elizabeth Mulhane B.PsycSci(Hons).