There was a time, not too long ago, when I would marvel at how blasé parents were about dropping their kids off at birthday parties, school, extra-curricular activities, and the like. As the parent of a highly anxious child, however, any one of those things would put me on the precipice of a panic attack, wondering how he would do. Would he balk and refuse to go in? Would he throw himself down on the ground? Would he run, literally run, as he had so often done before? I was always armed and ready to do battle, to slay the forces of extreme social anxiety that would rear their terrifying heads in these situations. I never thought I would become that casual, laid-back mom who leaves their kid at drop-off parties or reads their Kindle while their kid plays soccer.
And yet that is exactly what I have become.
D has come so far from where he once was that I have begun taking for granted how loose and easy and brave he is in new situations. New soccer camp this week? Fine! Drop-off party at the local laser tag place? Check. His 11-year-old cousin crashing on his bedroom floor for days on end? No problem!
Social situations no longer scare or stress him. Two weeks ago, in fact, he had his 7th birthday with 15 of his closest friends, and he smiled and laughed from beginning to end. In fact, he has never looked so happy in all his life. There was a time when he would freak out at the first note of the “Happy Birthday” song — even when it was being sung to someone else.
So, where am I headed with all this? Imagine my incredible surprise when D refused to go to his friend Charlie’s birthday party this morning, a backyard splash party, because of a sudden attack of shyness. As D and I walked up to the front door of his friend’s house, D suddenly refused to take another step. His face was red and he had the unmistakable look of fear in his eyes. He wasn’t just misbehaving; he was anxious. I’ve seen it a million times.
“Come on!” I urged him. “It will be fun!” (What a lie. If you’re shy and socially anxious, parties are the opposite of fun.)
“I’m not going!” he said. “I don’t want to be here.”
I made some vague threat along the lines of, if you don’t march up here with me right now you’ll regret it forever. He marched. We made it in the door, and then he stood stock-still in the dining room and refused to go any further. “I’m not changing into my bathing suit,” he said. “I’m not going out there.”
I left him in the dining room and said my hellos to Charlie’s parents. I went back to D to see if I could encourage him to move. No luck. After more cajoling, I got him into the bathroom so he could change into his swim trunks. I exited the bathroom and made more small talk with other adults for five full minutes. When I went to check on him, to my chagrin, D hadn’t changed. In fact, he hadn’t even moved. “I’m not leaving the bathroom,” he said.
I told him that he couldn’t hide in the bathroom all day. He folded his arms and dug in his heels. I had a terrible flashback to another time D had a similar anxiety attack on his first day of tae kwon do, which kept us trapped in a bathroom for a long, long time. In the present, I finally got him to leave the bathroom and told him to at least go out and say “hi” to the birthday child. He refused to do it. In fact, he flipped out and balked and kicked like a bronco. I made hasty apologies and we fled.
I screamed at him the whole way home.
I realize, of course, that that’s not an ideal reaction. While D ran sobbing to his bedroom, I cried in the living room, recounting for Eric all that had happened and how these kinds of situations send me on a stomach-lurching time warp back to our darkest days of selective mutism and social anxiety. It may sound hyperbolic, but there were so many times during those dark days that we felt like we were at war with an unseen enemy (anxiety) that tried to keep our son down at every turn, who threatened his joy — his very participation — in all that life had to offer.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy in these moments to transfer the anger from the unseen enemy to the thing I can see — my child. And that’s what happened today. I screamed at D and told him how disappointed and embarrassed I was by him and for him.
Eventually I calmed down and Eric and I sat D down between us. I apologized for my horrid behavior and tried to explain why I was so upset. We reminded D of all the reasons why we misbehave — a list we’ve gone back to countless times over the years* — and we conjectured that he might be overtired, worried, and embarrassed. He agreed. Eventually, we got him calm enough to agree to go back to the birthday party, an incredibly brave act given the way we had left it. In fact, as I write this, they are still there.
But this episode threw me for a loop. It was a stark reminder that, despite D’s progress, I still need to be sensitive to his emotional needs. He’s been running tired all week, and edgier than usual, and he may have been a volcano waiting to erupt. School is starting in just a couple weeks, and that always stresses him out too.
You can bet that I’ll be spending the next few days and weeks figuring out how to build D’s confidence, help him rest, and calm his nerves. Anxiety is an enemy that sneaks up on you, whispers in your ear, and takes you by the throat. But I’ve beaten it before, and I’ll do it again. So will D.
* The 12 Reasons Why We Misbehave
(We developed this list over time, beginning when D was three years old, to help him to identify his feelings and figure out the root causes of his actions when things aren’t going well. D has it completely memorized, in order, and it’s really helped us to get past the acting-out stage and into the recovery and problem-solving stage. We find it helpful for us grownups too.)
1. We’re hungry.
2. We’re tired.
3. We’re thirsty.
4. We’re mad.
5. We’re sad.
6. We’re worried.
7. We’re scared.
8. We’re bored.
9. We’re embarrassed.
10. We’re constipated (funny, but true in our case).
11. We’re around too many people.
12. We’re jealous.