Within the last 18 months, Ryan developed what we thought was a tic. A transient tic that started as eye blinking and eventually made its way to licking his face and hands. At first, we thought the eye blinking was a result of allergies, but after being pricked with every allergen known to man and looking like a 3-year-old voodoo doll, we were pleased to see that he was not, in fact, allergic to anything. Cory used to endure weekly allergy shots so we were thrilled that Ryan would not have to accept the same fate.
The eye blinking lessened and then went away for a few months. We thought perhaps it was a case of a young boy testing out all the ways in which his body functions – nothing alarming – we just wanted to make sure there wasn’t any medical reason behind it that needed attention.
Some months later, probably around the beginning of this summer (my timing is totally not accurate so bear with me), we noticed Ryan started touching his tongue to his nose. It started out maybe once or twice an hour and eventually became a more frequent event throughout each day. We really didn’t know what to make of it. We tried ignoring it. We tried talking about it. It continued.
I started asking around about tics and reading up on tic disorders in children. It seemed to be pretty common for young kids to develop these transient tics and as long as they didn’t interfere with daily life or interactions, it would be best to let it go.
Then sometime this Fall, the hand licking started. Ryan would take his hands, bring them from the back to the front of his head and lick his palms. We knew that he was expressing something through this and didn’t want him to feel embarrassed by bringing too much attention to it, but we grew concerned with both the frequency of the behavior and the fact that depending on where he was, his hands could be carrying some pretty nasty germs. Seeing as though Ryan knew he was doing something out of the ordinary, we gently asked him to try and explain these physical compulsions. He said that he had a “Head TV” that told him to do these things. He would tell it “No!” but it would say “Yes!” and force him do it. It broke my heart to think of him having this internal struggle.
I spoke with Ryan’s teacher, since she spends the most time with him throughout the day and we’re always in open communication. I wanted to know if anything was going on at school that may be worrying Ryan or making him anxious. The report was that Ryan was very well liked by peers of both sexes, a good athlete and was particularly compatible with this one boy who I know well and like very much. Problem is, Ryan has become increasingly sensitive in social situations and this boy likes to play independently while Ryan really prefers to play with someone. (Google ‘Helicopter Parenting’ for the explanation.) So when Ryan’s friend says he wants to play by himself, Ryan takes that to mean the kid doesn’t like him and he gets upset.
Another situation that came to mind involved a recent rash of playdates involving same-age peers and their older, same-sex siblings. In general, when Ryan plays with peers, he is comfortable, dominant at times and passive at other times – pretty appropriate for his age. When older siblings come into play, Ryan is the odd man out and it really gets to him. I’ve learned that first children are typically more sensitive than their younger siblings who tend to let things roll off easier. I made it a point to limit those interactions with the much older kids so that Ry could feel more comfortable, but I felt caught between coddling him and telling him “life isn’t fair – deal with it.” Since he’s 4, I’m more inclined to be soft. It’s hard – you want your kid to feel good about himself, but you also have to let them experience sadness, pain and whatever else gets thrown their way so that they can learn how to cope.
When the hand-licking became distracting even to Ryan, I decided to take him to a pediatric psychiatrist. Before the first appointment, I hypothesized that the cause of the tics stemmed from some type of anxiety and I was right. Members from both sides of our family (including myself) suffered from anxiety at one time or another and although I was hoping it would skip over Ryan, I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t. The doctor used her conversations with Ryan, me, his teacher and pediatrician as well as paperwork that I filled out to come up with the ”diagnosis” and feedback. She recommended another doctor in the practice who specializes in anxiety disorders in young children where Ryan could use play, art and behavioral therapy to work out internal issues and if needed, habit reversal therapies for the tic. Cory and I are ready to help Ryan in any way we can even though he is very young and sometimes I wonder if we’re doing the right thing to even take action at all. It may seem silly to intervene at this point, but I know what it is like to struggle with anxiety and we’d rather have the tools early on rather than wait until something big happens and not have the means to help Ryan cope.
So, we’ll see. I struggled with sharing this information only because I didn’t get Ryan’s permission to share this or any other of his personal information with the World Wide Web, but such are the decisions I have made as a parent and a blogger. Being open about my own experiences with anxiety and depression has helped other people with their struggles in the past and I hope that maybe sharing this will help a parent or child going through something similar.
Anxiety is touching our children at such a young age. I think today’s parents and teachers are pulled in two very different directions – allowing our children to be children and just play versus pushing our kids to be overscheduled, hyper-educated and stressed before they even get to kindergarten so that they can be on the right track… to somewhere. Teachers who stress play over skills are chastised by parents but at the same time, our children are growing up too fast and they feel pressure at too young an age. I don’t think pressure at school has anything to do with Ryan’s anxiety – unfortunately I think it was going to come knocking down his door no matter what. I just hope we all can learn how to find the right balance so that Ryan can feel on the inside what we all see and love on the outside.