When I was 8 or 9 years old, I saw a production of The Nutcracker on TV 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 class, we had to drive farther than I realized to a studio 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 know where to go except us. Then my worrying bloomed into a giant Fear Monster inside my head. Would we find the right door? What was going to happen? Would my mother leave me alone there? Would she remember where to go when she came to pick me up? Would it be scary? Would the teacher be mean? What if I had to use the bathroom? What ever made me think I could dance? Woop, woop, woop! Red Alert! My hand, clutched tightly in my mother’s, grew slick with sweat. My throat was lined with cotton.
“Here it is!” my mother said as she threw open the door, oblivious and cheerful. Inside, a sea of little girls’ faces turned and stared. Loud music blared and lights glared.
There was nothing in the world I wanted more than to enter that room, but I was frozen. My body and brain had become a silent, screaming, red-alert zone. The Fear Monster paralyzed me 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.
I was a kid with undiagnosed sensory processing disorder and generalized anxiety. It was a different time and people didn’t understand 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.
Stanley, the main character and hero in my book Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, also fights the Fear Monster of anxiety. He, too, is an awfulizer, a catastrophizer, a worrier par excellence. His mind races right to the scariest “what ifs” of any situation, often to the point of comic absurdity. But just like me, Stanley is a fighter. He learns to get through it, even if he doesn’t solve everything perfectly.
Stanley and I are not alone. According to a recent Child Mind Institute study, upwards of 30 percent of children develop some sort of anxiety disorder before age 18. Eighty percent of those anxious kids won’t receive formal treatment.
Because I have survived a lifetime of worrying, here are a few things I’ve learned about kids and anxiety:
1. 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 failure.
2. Recognize the “woops.” When red-alerts show up, remind kids to take a breather—a moment to settle their physical body. Suggest they breathe in deeply and “visualize” calm.
3. Be patient. Take 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 one day her son suddenly 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. And that’s fine, too. Make sure you’re honoring their needs, not yours. But make sure they are moving forward and making progress — not retreating, giving up or letting their Fear Monsters win.
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 these kids because I think they are among our bravest. They are sensitive kids who are fighting valiantly to do things out in the world. Let’s help them make the gains and garner all the wins they can. In my 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” and “Stanley Will Probably Be Fine.” She lives in North County San Diego with her family.