By proxy - FamilyEducation

By proxy

August 19,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

The parents in our Asperger's Support Group have an inside sort of joke between ourselves: it's called "Asperger's/anxiety/fill-in-the-blank-by-proxy" and we use it to jokingly refer to the behaviors of siblings that mimic those of their brothers and sisters who are on the spectrum. The by-proxy phenomenon happens a lot among younger siblings--a younger brother, for instance, may watch his older brother and develop some of the same rigid behavior patterns. A younger sister might absorb some of her brother's anxieties about any number of things, and take them on as her own. T. has been relatively immune to the by-proxy phenomenon, but I suspect that as she gets older, it's been creeping into her life, slowly but surely. All children have bouts of anxiety from time to time--these can be set off by a sudden change, or by fears, or by some imbalance in their own worlds. Spells of anxiety usually flare up around an event, and then the child is able to manage them, with guidance and help from their parents--learning to cope with periodic anxiety is, I think, a critical life skill. Some children, just like some adults, experience anxiety so gripping that they have trouble functioning. I once knew a graduate student who was overcome by such anxiety that he couldn't leave his room until he managed to get it back under control. L.'s anxiety is of the crippling sort, although with help we've helped him hold it at bay successfully for over a year now. But T. has been experiencing anxiety lately, and I think much of it is a reflection of her brother's own feelings about school, and school is something T. has enjoyed so far. Lately, T.'s been falling apart at bedtime. She's one of those kids who manages her emotions well during the day but when night comes, out come her worries and fears, like shadows in the dark. Every bedtime for the past two weeks has been a long, drawn out drama of tears, pleading, extra stories, a million extra hugs, super-glue type clinginess, and your garden variety type of stalling. We are no strangers to sleep-related dramas, though, although we've grown considerably less patient with age. Last night T. told me she is worried about first grade. She is worried about the homework, and the quizzes (?), and mean kids, and riding the bus to field trips, and who she will be friends with now that her BFF will no longer be at her school and...math. She is also worried about being lost, left behind in a store, forgotten. It was a long list of heavy fears and worries to weigh down such a small girl like my T. "Why are you so worried about these things?" I asked her, trying, probably pretty poorly, to hide the heartbreak in my voice. I don't remember such anxiety this time last year. While clearly to me many of her worries echo her brother's own, some worries are T.'s and T.'s alone--there is no by-proxy in these. Poised as she is on the brink of a new school year--the worries and fears are finding their way in, creeping through the cracks, and coloring her world a shifting and uncertain place. I find myself helpless, as I always am, in the face of my children's anxious times. All I can offer are more hugs, more reassurances, special tucks, a warm bed, a song, a lucky doll, a mug of vanilla milk--small measures and magic charms to fill those cracks, mending little souls.