“Mom, my stomach feels weird,” he said. Cue nurse mode: “are you getting sick?” I asked, already scanning for a good place to pull the car over and wondering where I put that barf bag that I kept just for this reason.
“No. I’m just scared to go to this outing.” I wanted to cry. Why does it seem like my children are fighting my own demons instead of triumphing and conquering the world like kids should?
If you believe in fairness and justice, this just stinks of wrong. It sucks. My kids have dealt with anxiety for every year of their short lives, and now my oldest is showing signs of social anxiety. I’m not sure if it’s an age thing, a developmental thing, or a new and emerging symptom. As always, I feel like I’m fumbling in the dark trying to find answers.
It’s somewhat ironic that this year of all years is an issue. The Engineer is involved in more social activities than ever, and he effortlessly navigates the complex currents of the playground now. He can talk to just about anyone (eye roll here) and he has no trouble making friends. So why is social anxiety a problem?
We talked about why he felt like that, and what he could do to physically force his body to relax and calm down. I didn’t make a big deal about it – my own experience has taught me that when we get in a negative feedback loop and focus on the fear, it’s really hard to break out. We went on, did our social outing, and suffered through it.
Literally suffered. The adults let the kids work out their issues – and they had some issues – and kept a watchful eye from a distance. We want our kids to build some resilience and learn to problem solve and interact without us. The Engineer was upset: at me, for not buying the toy he “needed” for this outing, at the natural leaders of the group for only wanting to play a game they could play, and at his siblings who tagged along.
It wasn’t fun for me either – no parent wants to watch their child suffer, even for a mild issue like this one.
Today, I heard it again. “Mom, I don’t want to do art class.” “Why, son?” You love art class.” He sighed – the weight of the world resting on a seven-year-old’s shoulders – “I just don’t want to. I don’t want to be around people.”
I gave him a hug, and offered him the option of going to his room for peace and quiet if he needed it. I explained what our project was (Japanese Shibori resist dyeing technique) and told him I thought he would enjoy it. He decided to try. Five minutes after his friends arrived he forgot all about his anxiety and was happily playing the game of Ur that his friend brought for history class.
Apple, meet tree
I know how he feels. To feel your stomach physically twist into knots. To worry that you’ll be alone and rejected. To be so physically tight and wound up because of your body’s fear response that you literally cannot relax. I know. I live it.
Some things I can do now because of repeated exposure. Social gatherings are still hard. It’s partly an introvert thing for me, and it’s mostly an anxiety thing. Will I say the wrong thing and offend someone? Will I understand the joke? What if I drop something, spill something, ruin something? It’s paralyzing and frustrating.
Intellectually I know it’s stupid. If I offend someone, chances are they’re too sensitive. If I drop something, big whoop. If I don’t understand the joke, it might be because it’s not funny. What I know intellectually just doesn’t stick when the fear rises and my heart starts pounding. Even now, just writing this, my heart started pounding and the fear began rising like a warped kind of tide. Just thinking about it is enough to trigger it!
How do we counteract it?
We both focus on controlling our bodies – the physical response is something we can work to control, and that breaks the feedback loop with the brain. If we can get the body to relax and stop “running away” in fear, the feeling are manageable.
Deep breathing, calming our body, doing mindfulness techniques – those all help. Everyone is different, and some might respond better to therapy or medication – please go see a doctor if your child needs help for an issue that mindfulness isn’t managing!
Most of all – we face our fears. Scared of the homeschool gathering? Let’s brainstorm ways to participate without feeling extra pressure. Worried about art class? Let’s give you an out – a place to go if you’re overwhelmed. Never throw the kid in the deep end – give them ways to test their limits without feeling trapped.
Like me, my son will have to learn to live with his demons. I wish I could slay them for him. Only he can do that – as long as I offer him the tools to help.