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Managing childhood anxiety through sport – Shannyn’s Story

This unguarded inspirational piece, told from the mother herself, about her seemingly hopeless struggle to settle her unhappy child and the lifeline Brazilian Jiu Jitsu provided for the child and family on a whole.  Thank you to Shannyn Stevens and family for allowing us to share this. We salute you and all the parents around the world for never giving up….The Fight Never Ends.

“Motherhood has changed me, stretched me, pulled me apart. It has broken me down but it has also filled me with so much light and love. The one thing I ever wanted to be was a Mum. I am deeply grateful that I’ve been one of the lucky ones who’ve could experience the journey. But it’s hard, it’s so bloody hard.

My dreams of being a mum were always filled with love, laughter and so much fun. They were filled with family holidays and perfect endings to almost every day, perfect babies, perfect sleepers and well behaved children. In fact, I always thought that naughty little kids derived from parents who didn’t discipline their children.  Oh, how wrong I was.

When I had my first baby, I had a rude awakening. As I look back over the years I know he was sent to me as someone special and sent for a reason; to push me to grow; to push me to the brink to see if I could return. To find a strength deep inside that I never imagined lied within me. Don’t get me wrong, there was no one in this world I adored more than him, but motherhood changed me too.

He wasn’t the perfect sleeper and I wasn’t the perfect mum.  He woke almost every two hours until he was ten months old, I was completely drained. I returned to work when he was only four months and I worked four days a week to get away – to run away, I guess – for a few hours in the day.

I knew my son was different and I knew he had a magical mind on another level, but at the age of three and a half anxiety became a regular foe in his life. He stopped wanting to stay with family, he didn’t like me leaving him. Once, my husband took him to the cricket and he lay huddled on his knee, not wanting to be there.

His school years rolled around. I remember that first day so vividly, wondering who he’d play with, if the kids in the yard would be nice, how he would settle with his teacher. So many thoughts flooded my mind and I really missed him. Soon after he refused to let me walk him to his room – he was a big boy now and didn’t need his mum – and I was proud to see him standing on his own.

Yet soon after his first year of school I watched him slowly slipping. His moods changed and he was no longer the happy little boy that had started school. He raged the moment I picked him up, I wouldn’t even have the car door closed before he would be kicking my seat and screaming and yelling. I’d noticed so many traits about him that I thought were starting to draw a picture of something bigger so I sat and made a list of every characteristic: emotional, physical, his strengths, his weaknesses, likes, dislikes, academic areas of concern.  Triggers that escalated his anxiety and notes about his development as a baby and toddler. It was time to find answers. Why did he need so much attention? Why he couldn’t follow simple steps? Why did he have explosions of frustration, anger and hyperactivity? Most alarmingly, when I looked into his empty eyes why couldn’t I see happiness there? He was one lost little boy.

It was time to find answers. Why did he need so much attention? Why he couldn’t follow simple steps? Why did he have explosions of frustration, anger and hyperactivity? Most alarmingly, when I looked into his empty eyes why couldn’t I see happiness there?

There was yelling, from both of us. I found him so draining and each day he sucked the life out of me to a point where I felt completely wiped out, lost and alone. There was no other choice than to hunt down answers but I had no idea where to start or who to turn to. No one I knew was experiencing what I was, so no one really understood what I was going through. The days became long and school pick up was the last thing I wanted to do. There were days when I would cry at the thought of having to spend the entire weekend with him if my husband was working. By this stage, we also had two other children as well. I met his needs first as the other two slotted in and went with the flow of life, but I also felt I couldn’t give them the individual time and energy they needed.

I resented him for the person I was becoming. This was my son, the one thing I had always wanted, the one thing that really did bring a smile to my face, a glow in my heart but also a crack that seemed to let the light seep out.

I decided not to stop until I found answers. He had a cognitive assessment, we saw speech pathologists, we tried kinesiology, occupational therapists, psychologists and finally, a paediatrician.  Finally, after a long twelve months of searching and many appointments, I had some answers: Severe language disorder, hyperactivity, inattention, challenging behaviour and – just to top it off – anxiety.

I worked closely with his psychologist on behavioural management plans, most about reinforcing positivity. Try doing that when your kids bouncing off the walls and flat out naughty! If I caught him sitting nicely I would say “great job for sitting and playing so nicely” then reward him with a sticker on his chart which lead to a greater reward once he filled a line. This works incredibly well in theory but is tough to juggle when you also have a two-year-old and a six-month-old (both in nappies). To add to the mix my husband worked shift work and wasn’t home most weekends.

So, I tried. I tried so fucking hard to keep my shit together, run a house, raise toddlers, work on my health and fitness, manage my son and all his issues and be a wife. The hardest part was not having the support. Some days all I needed was to not be in his presence, just for a small break to re-energise and recharge my batteries.

Although with each year his behaviour improved, there were still many moments of rage, explosive aggression, sadness, frustration, lack of confidence and anxiety.  The paediatrician reluctantly suggested to medicate his anxiety – he had many parents who would only use them on school days, to allow the mind to calm enough to be able to take in what was being taught. I just couldn’t do it. Each to their own – I have no judgment of others who go down that path – but it just wasn’t something I was ready to do. I said no and walked away hoping that the decision I made was right. That was eighteen months ago.

My husband had suggested on a few occasions that we get him into a form of mixed martial arts, but I was worried that it could make our already aggressive child worse. My son had a friend at school who was doing Jiu Jitsu. I’d never heard of it but he nagged me numerous times about trying it out. He’d even told his Grade Three teacher that his goal in life was to become a UFC Fighter! My husband did some research and found a club, and I arranged for our son to try one of the classes.

He instantly fell in love with the sport. To my surprise, he used an arm bar submission which was self-taught watching female UFC champion Rhonda Rousey via You Tube clips. How could I hold him back when clearly, he was Googling and teaching himself anyway?

To my surprise, it started to change the person he was… The training lowered his energy levels, helping him calm down, relax and ultimately altered his behaviour.

He trained hard. It meant us travelling an hour each way to get him to training, but he loved it and appeared to be a natural. To my surprise, it started to change the person he was. He started to grow a new-found confidence and developed a real passion that seemed to run deep in his veins. He trained for around five and a half hours over two nights a week. The training lowered his energy levels, helping him calm down, relax and ultimately altered his behaviour. He found something he was good at, that truly resonated with his soul. It became a space where he could understand the world through a learning environment that really worked for him. It was the discipline, the structure, the excitement of winning a roll and getting a submission on. He immersed himself in the training everyday – before school, after school, weekends even Christmas morning. When he wasn’t training he was watching some of his idols like Georges St-Pierre, Connor McGregor and Rhonda Rousey. He absorbed it like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Shadow boxing in the TV reflection, windows, mirrors, any surface he could see himself. Trying out new moves and repeating them until he could show his coach for approval and to perfect them.

I can’t explain the difference that Jiu Jitsu made to his life. He has a role model in his coach, someone he looks up to and aspires to be like. Our son watches his coaches fights repeatedly, he has his picture on his bedroom door, he has him set as his lock screen on his iPad and has even expressed he wants to be Irish like his coach.  Our son’s coach will never fully understand what he restored in our son. I’ll never forget the day I looked into my son’s eyes and saw that he was empty. How could a nine year old boy be so lost in a world where he was so loved? How had I failed so badly that it was beyond my control to make this little boy happy? Jiu Jitsu filled all the holes in his heart and left him totally beaming with pride, self-esteem, self-confidence and pure happiness.

Some people judge me for allowing him to part take in this type of activity but I know what works for him. The people that are really his tribe – the ones who walk with him and understand his passion – they understand it too.

I labelled Jiu Jitsu his natural medication and realised I made the right decision not to medicate his anxiety.  After attending his paediatrician’s appointment and explaining the dramatic shift in his life it was decided he no longer needed to see his paediatrician. His psychologist agreed.

After training for three months our son entered his first competition and won in both of his Gi and Nogi divisions. He was so proud; we were so proud of him. Jiu Jitsu taught him about the tough lessons, the ones he would struggle to understand in a normal life setting. Jiu Jitsu is an individual sport either you win or your opponent does. There is no losing – try explaining that to a nine-year-old! He found it confronting, upsetting, frustrating and a little disheartening but I worked hard to explain to him that he hadn’t lost, rather, he’d had a lesson. He could watch his videos play back and see where he went wrong, what he could change or do better and hse’d watch himself fight over and over again, and completely change the way he rolls in the future. His determination, competitiveness and motivation are truly inspiring and they will help him to go all the way.

February 2017 marked twelve months our son had been training in Jiu Jitsu. He has entered 7 comps and won 4 gold, 2 silver and 3 bronze medals and a best submission at one of the in-club tournaments.

He continues to train hard and work towards his goals. It isn’t without the bumps along the road. There are still melt downs and I still feel lost or often lonely in a world of challenge. I’m dedicated to travelling twice a week, one hour each way so he can train. I sit for many hours (often with his siblings, now six and four) watching him train and chase his dreams. I love watching him do what he loves, I love seeing how it has transformed his life.

Sometimes I miss the old me, the free me, the one who could do what she wanted. But that’s motherhood I guess or my journey at least. I’ve changed, my life revolves solely around my kids. I give them every ounce of my being and seek little in return.

I’ve learnt that I’m stronger than I could have ever imagined, I’ve seen sides to me I don’t like, and I’ve learnt about the mother and person I want to be. I’ve become a better person, but it’s taken one hell of a journey to get here.

But I have learnt patience, and learnt to love something so deeply that you really would do anything for that love. I’ve learnt that I’m stronger than I could have ever imagined, I’ve seen sides to me I don’t like, and I’ve learnt about the mother and person I want to be. I’ve become a better person, but it’s taken one hell of a journey to get here. There are days I want to give up and throw it all in and run far away from my responsibilities. I judge myself harshly but I do the best I can with the tools I have. I am trying to shape well rounded, well behaved, polite, loving little people. Amazingly it can just take one great day with them to wash away all the bad -from a genuine “thank you” to a comforting hug when it’s really needed. The one solid thing I have is my husband. When the pressure has really been on we’ve held on tight for the ride. When emotions have been high and we’ve been stretched to our limits we remain the constant. Our bond really has stood the test of time and it’s only made us stronger.

I want to share my story because of the loneliness I have felt at times. Even though I have my husband to stand by me, it still feels lonely to be a mum who doesn’t know how to fix it. To the mums who have children with similar struggles and who understand this journey, I want you to know you’re not alone, even in your darkest hours. Not every mum has her shit together, no matter how strong she appears.”

*Originally published on Little Tsunami and republished with permission