Suffering from MSA: Mother’s Sympathy Anxiety
To be totally honest, I feel like we are doing a whole lot of over-diagnosing of children’s behavioural issues at the moment. When I was at uni studying Behavioural Science in the nineties, we just couldn’t keep up with the explosion of new terminology which was used to pigeon-hole personality types and behavioural traits into neat little boxes.
The paramaters of “normal” became narrower and more defined. Passionate, active, excitable, shy, nervous, calm, talkative, challenging, and artistic children jumped out of the “normal” box and were lumped with a diagnosis that rightly or wrongly defined them. Their diagnosis often came as a relief as guilt-ridden parents and teachers would wring their hands and wonder what they had done wrong to contribute to this “different” behaviour, and the government would offer money for assistant teachers, counselling, and medication. The aim of all this? To bring children back into the neatly defined parameters of normal. Because it was easier – usually for the parents, usually for the teachers, usually for society, but rarely for the children.
We began to lose sight of the beautiful and unique characteristics that made our children an individual. We were creating “Stepford-Children” – assuming that they should all behave the same way, learn the same way, communicate the same way. New parents of this generation would feel worried if their children didn’t fit into this “ideal”. And even knowing all I did from a theoretical perspective, I fell into the trap of “chasing a diagnosis” for my son. As I stood in tears one morning, talking to his teacher and begging for help, I knew I desperately needed someone to put him in a pigeon hole. Because he wasn’t fitting anywhere. And I was tired of trying to make him fit where he obviously didn’t.
Not surprisingly, but with huge relief, my son was diagnosed with very mild anxiety. It was a relief because I could stop stressing about how I contributed to his anxiety, and start concentrating on how I could help him deal with his anxiety. Thankfully it’s been an easier road to travel than I expected. Some of the tactics involve:
- talking to him about upcoming events, and explaining what will be happening, who will be there, and what to expect.
- understanding that his angry and “naughty” behaviour is usually a cover for his feelings of anxiety and nervousness.
- talking him through an event and discussing how fantastic he will feel when he has finished an activity – trying to help him to predict and feel that feeling of achievement, so he has something to look forward to.
- acknowledging his fears – that they are real and entirely valid.
- encouraging him and role-modelling how to be a risk-taker, because even as adults we have to do things that we may not always be comfortable doing.
- telling him that I love him and I am proud of him
The funny thing out of all of this is that I am becoming very familiar with his feelings of anxiety. I can see them from a mile away. And what’s more I can now FEEL them. Which brings me back to me!
I am a sympathy crier. If someone’s eyes well with tears in front of me, I am a lost cause. I have to fight back the tears myself, willing my eyeballs to just hold it together.
And it’s the same with my boy. As soon as I see “that look” on his face, I instantly feel the tension in my gut. I start feeling nervous, and I telepathically send him every ounce of strength I can summon up. I grit my teeth and squint my eyes, whispering “C’mon, you can do it. You’re OK. You can do this”, over and over. And I hold my breath, not daring to make a peep until I have willed him through his own feelings of self-doubt. I have self-diagnosed myself with MSA – Mother’s Sympathy Anxiety!
But you know what – that’s OK. I can wear that hat – it kinda fits pretty alright on my head.
Because I have stopped blaming myself for what I did wrong. I didn’t break him. I didn’t cause him to feel this way. He’s my boy and I love him with all my heart. And the more I understand him, and love him, and not only acknowledge who he is, but embrace it with all that I am, then maybe, just maybe, I can sneakily remove him from his pigeon hole of diagnosis, and nudge him gently back into the chaotic swirl of “normal” – whatever THAT means!
Because colour and diversity and difference and tolerance and acceptance is what makes this world beautiful. I want to stretch the boundaries of normal- push back the parameters and let us embrace all those wonderful emotions and feelings and idiosyncrasies that make us so unique.
To my Fred, you ARE ok! You are such a beautiful colour in our family rainbow. You CAN do this. I DO love you. And I am SO proud of you.