Anxiety can be sneaky.
It appears in ways we don’t expect, in moments we can’t predict. Like my young protagonist in Drawing Deena, I discovered that I was clenching my teeth at night when my dentist confirmed I had cracked a molar. To be honest, like Deena, I had ignored my dentist’s warning that I was likely clenching and stress grinding until the evidence flashed across an
For others in my family, anxiety has taken on different forms. Rather than causing dental concerns, for them it’s manifested as nausea, a churning of the insides, and the urge to vomit. That was even sneakier because those symptoms are easy to confuse with other potential gastroenterological issues — acid reflux, allergies, lactose intolerance, and more. And then there’s the ultimate sneak-attack, the panic attack that out of nowhere brings on hyperventilation, chest pains, and the overwhelming fear that one is dying.
In children, we know that anxiety can be particularly hard to diagnose in part because they aren’t great at describing their symptoms. Plus, the adults in their lives may think they have little reason to be worried or stressed about in the first place. We may not realize how much their concerns, however small to us, can cause big physiological responses. It can be easier to blame diet, digestion, or a stomach bug than accepting that stress or thoughts can make their bodies behave in ways that betray them. And there can often be a component of denial, as we fear that giving kids an anxiety diagnosis will slap them with a label that will live with them forever.
This is particularly true in some immigrant communities, where mental health issues are still highly stigmatized. In my own family, it’s been historically difficult for members to recognize, accept, and take the steps to treat the anxiety and other mental health challenges that their children face. There are privacy concerns, a sense that the kids might be branded in a way that might hurt them professionally and socially in the future, were others to find out. There’s a reluctance to turn to therapy, something seen as a good option for “other people,” maybe those without large family networks, supportive community institutions, and the like.
While writing Drawing Deena, I wanted to portray a character who doesn’t understand her own anxiety symptoms or see them for what they are. And neither does her family. It’s not that her parents don’t care about her deeply—of course they do. Her anxiety simply doesn’t register as a possibility for them at first. And later, they fear what they don’t fully understand. I imagine many kids might identify with Deena and her journey to discover something new about herself, even if it isn’t easy to accept—for either her or her family.
I also wanted to showcase the counseling resources that are often available to kids in public schools. Although I have a friend who’s a school psychologist, I didn’t understand exactly what her job entailed until I interviewed her for this book. It’s incredible that schools can offer so much in the way of support for kids who are struggling and help to treat anxiety before it grows increasingly debilitating and affects school performance, social functioning and more.
The world is stressful and seems to be growing increasingly anxiety-producing by the day. With a pandemic, climate change, divisive politics, global conflict, and more, it’s no surprise that children today are experiencing high levels of anxiety. The good news is that if it’s something that is addressed, we can give young people the coping tools that can help them to manage it, overcome it, and thrive. That might involve therapy, art, family support, prayer, or any combination of them all. But it’s something that we must look out for, recognize, and confront, together.
It’s my hope is that reading stories about anxiety will help to destigmatize it. My goal is for the kids who are experiencing it, from every background, to feel less alone. And perhaps, stories like Drawing Deena could even encourage them and their families
to seek the help they need and deserve.
Hena Khan (she/her/hers) is a Pakistani American writer and winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature. She is the author of the middle grade novels Amina’s Voice, Amina’s Song, More to the Story, Drawing Deena, and the Zara’s Rules series and picture books Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Under My Hijab, and It’s Ramadan, Curious George, among others. Hena lives in her hometown of Rockville, Maryland, with her family. You can learn more about Hena and her books by visiting her website at HenaKhan.com or connecting with her @HenaKhanBooks. You can purchase Drawing Deena here.
photo credit: Haver Espedal