When I was eight or nine, I saw a production of The Nutcracker on television, and fell in love with the idea of ballet. I pirouetted around the house night and day, with dreams of pink slippers in my head, until finally my mother signed me up for dance lessons.
The day of the first lesson, we had to drive quite far, farther than I realized the trip would be, because the studio was in an unfamiliar town.
Woop. A tiny anxiety flare went off, somewhere between my stomach and chest.
We found the address — a big, imposing building — and went inside. It smelled strange, like floor polish and rubber. Were we in the right place?
Woop, woop. More anxiety flares.
We walked down a crowded hallway. Everyone seemed to belong there. To know where they were going. Except us.
Then my worrying really ratcheted up. In fact, it bloomed into a giant Fear Monster inside my head.
Which door was the class behind? Would we find it? What was going to happen? Would my mother leave me alone, there? Would she remember where to find me when she came back to pick me up? Would it be scary? Would the teacher be mean? Would I get lost? What if I had to use the bathroom? I can’t dance! What ever made me think I could dance? I’m going to be no good at this, no good at this at all —
Woop! Woop! Woop! Red Alert!
My hand, clutched tightly in my mother’s, grew slick with sweat. My throat was suddenly lined with cotton.
“Here it is!” my mother said, oblivious and cheerful, throwing open a door.
Inside, a sea of little girls’ faces all turned toward me and stared. Loud music blared. Lights glared.
There was nothing in the world I wanted more than to enter that room. But I couldn't. I was frozen solid.
My body and brain had become a total, silent, screaming, red-alert zone. The Fear Monster had me paralyzed in its deadly grip. I could not make a single muscle move.
My mother had to physically pry my fingers off the doorframe so she could take me home in shame. She was very upset with me. But not as upset as I was with myself. I felt like a total failure.
Actually, I was a kid with undiagnosed anxiety and sensory processing disorders (facets of what added up, many years later, to an autism-spectrum diagnosis). It was a different time back then -- people didn’t understand such things the way they do today. But I wish I’d known, and that my family had known. Knowledge is power, and knowing the enemy you’re fighting — knowing the face of your Fear Monster — is a big part of the battle, in life.
According to a recent Child Mind Institute study, upwards of 30% of children develop some sort of anxiety disorder before age 18. And 80% of those anxious kids won’t receive formal treatment.
So, because I have lived a lifetime of worrying, and survived this long to tell the tale, here are some takeaways, some things I’ve learned about kids and anxiety, just in case you have some of that going on in your life, too.
Sympathize and listen. Sometimes we don’t need all our problems solved. We just need a hug. For instance: What if I could have told my mom how I was feeling, and she could have responded: “Oh, honey. That must have been so hard. I’m sorry.” I would have felt heard, and respected, instead of like a misunderstood failure.
Sometimes we don’t need all our problems solved.
Recognize the 'woop-woops.' When ‘red-alerts’ show up, or whatever physical anxiety symptoms most bother your child, remind them to take a breather, a moment to settle their physical body. To breathe in deeply. Relax muscles. Visualize “calm.” Our physical and emotional responses are deeply connected; by calming one, we can help calm the other.
Be patient. Baby steps. A friend once told me about her son who was too frightened to take ski lessons. She said that was fine; they’d just watch from the sidelines, and she promised not to let go of his hand. They spent three lessons like that, silently holding hands and watching. Then, her son suddenly up and skied off to join the line-up. He just needed to take it slow, get used to the idea — and she was patient and loving enough to offer that.
Alternatively, sometimes kids are perfectly happy with reduced levels of involvement. They’re happy to cheer from the sidelines. That’s fine. Make sure you’re honoring their needs, not yours. But make sure they are moving forward and making progress — not retreating or giving up, or letting their Fear Monsters win.
Make sure you’re honoring their needs, not yours.
Last but not least, seek out books and stories that show your child that they are not alone -- that their feelings are valid, and human, and shared. If you need help finding some appropriate stories, you can check out the database on this very website. Sort our Airtable doc by "issue," then "anxiety," and many possible reads will appear.
It’s hard work to fight through anxiety — really hard work. It takes medal-worthy courage to face life’s challenges when you’re in the throes of that physical fight-flight-or-freeze duress. We need to respect and support anxious kids, and look up to them, because I think they are actually among the bravest of us all. They are sensitive, finely-tuned kids who are fighting valiantly to be out in the world, doing things. Let’s help them make all the gains and garner all the wins they can.
Because in my long experience, Fear Monsters can be tamed into submission. It all starts with a little extra understanding.
Sally J. Pla is an award-winning children’s author whose books include The Someday Birds (autism), Stanley Will Probably Be Fine (anxiety), and Benji, The Bad Day, & Me (autism/sibling rivalry). She lives in San Diego with her family.