Reframing Anxiety

As you know, Milly moved to a new school district this year.  She is now in the fifth grade.  That feels weird to say.  Grace was in the fifth grade at the onset of her disease, and she’s starting high school in the fall! Can someone please groan in disbelief with me?!

This new school district is one of the wealthiest in our state, and I knew that Milly would be rubbing shoulders with privilege.  I grew up in the same situation.  My mother remarried when I was in the fifth grade, and our new blended family moved to a premier gated community on one of the nation’s newest and most exclusive 18-hole golf courses complete with country club and nouveau riche attitude.  I felt sorely out of place.  Parents were dropping their kids off at school in Jaguars and Porsches.  At Milly’s school, parents drop their kids off in Ferraris and Humvees.  There is only one non-white student in the entirety of the school.  We live near the city,  In our district schools, the student population is extremely diverse.  Suffice it to say, Milly was shocked but not impressed.

Why did I enroll her in this district? Special education resources, baby! Milly is receiving amazing accommodations through a fantastic IEP in this district.  The teaching staff is excellent, and the school principal along with her homeroom teacher should be bronzed.  It was the right decision through and through which is good because I drive, drive, drive all the time now.  Perhaps this is why I don’t blog here as often.  I’m driving.

What is even more interesting are the parents.  I have seen true helicopter parenting in action in this school in ways I have only read about in the New York Times.  They have the resources and the perceived influence to go in and make life hell for everyone.  “I’ve got a Hummer! I’ll drive it through this school if you don’t help my child’s cursive writing look like calligraphy!”

I kid.  Sort of.  The amount of wealth and privilege in this particular school is staggering, and it has led parents to believe that they can provide anything for their kids.  We want to believe this as parents.  If you have vast financial resources, it’s an even greater temptation to believe that you are the source of all provision.  You are not.  Let me explain.

I have met two mothers of two girls in Milly’s homeroom.  One of the mothers called me at the beginning of the school year and began to very subtly pump me for information.  Milly was new.  She needed to get the goods on our family.  She was skilled. I’ll give her that, but I’m from Texas.  Southern women are in a class all by themselves when it comes to gossip, getting information, and pretending to be friendly with a darker motive.  I have received this treatment many times from women ten times more adept than her.  So, I played along.  I may have misbehaved a little by giving her leading information that may or may not have been true.  I plead the Fifth on that one.  ::she grins::

She made a point to say to me:

“There may be a child in the class with Asperger’s.  Just so you know.”

I pointedly said, “That would be my child.  Milly is on the autism spectrum.”

You could have heard a pin drop.  ::she laughs maniacally but only on the inside::

This woman makes a point to talk to me at all school events now.  Guilt.  She mentioned to me recently that she and her husband bought a dog for their daughter in hopes that it would prevent her daughter from needing therapy.  Note that.

The other mother I mentioned controls the schedule of her daughter to such a degree that she can’t even have playdates with the same friend two weekends in a row.  This child has anxiety, but she does not see a therapist.  This mother has chosen control as a means to control her daughter’s anxiety.  One kid gets a dog.  The other gets a tiger mom.  Neither gets help outside of their parents.  And both parents along with all the others I’ve met at this school seems to believe one thing: My kid should not be anxious.

Let’s reframe this.

Travel back in time please to the moment before your first kiss.  Were you sweating? Did you feel sick to your stomach? Did you ponder whether it was really worth it? I was.  Jared.  That’s who kissed me first.  He was a senior.  I was a freshman, and I remembered seeing the look on his face.  The Look.  Intention.  Ohmigod, he’s going to do it.  And, it wasn’t like any John Hughes movie I had ever watched! Cue the cool music! Cue my hair looking awesome! What? I still had braces? Why does he look so intense? Why do I want to turn tail and run to my room and never come out? Do I really have to do this? Oh gawd, what if he, you know…er…tries to…GASP…FRENCH kiss me?!

That’s anxiety, and anxiety is part of growing and learning new skills.  Kissing is a skill after all.  We weren’t born knowing how to kiss.  And any girl will tell you that the bad boys kiss well.  Why? They had lots and lots of practice, and they weren’t anxious.  Why aren’t they anxious? Because they had mastered kissing girls.  They are “bad” because they had “leveled up” to other activities.  Activities that made the rest of us really anxious.

So, think about the first time you hit all those bases? Were you calm, cool, and collected? I doubt it.  No skills.  Fumbling around is more like it.  Now, think about The First Time.  I’m thinking that both genders were mind-numbingly anxious, but the desire to do it was greater than the anxiety.  That’s biology right there.  Drive mixed with desire.  Lust and maybe love for some people.

Now apply this principle to life.  We will experience anxiety before every jump in skills.  When we lack the skills, we know it.  That adrenaline dump is there to give us an edge.  Our insight into our own lack of skill is supposed to help us.  Adrenaline slows down our perception of time so that we can take in information.  We are designed to learn, change, and evolve.  Anxiety says, “Pay attention.  You don’t know this.  Time to learn it.”  Parents who insist that their children never feel anxious are actually preventing their children from developing distress tolerance.  It isn’t that we are not supposed to feel anxious.  We are.  It is that we are supposed to develop a tolerance for a certain level of anxiety.

Children are always going to feel a certain level of anxiety because they are in a constant state of skills acquisition.  Developing a tolerance for the discomfort that comes along with that internal stress known as anxiety is what is necessary.  Where does one learn this? Well, oftentimes we learn this in a therapist’s office, and this is the biggest misconception about therapy.  Because of the stigma around mental illness, parents feel shame around sending their kid to a therapist preferring to get a dog or control their child’s social groups and schedules.  This will not help a child acquire interpersonal skills, distress tolerance, or self-esteem.

A therapist is a skills teacher.  They teach skills.  They also teach parents how to enable their children to learn while tolerating distress.  What’s more, they teach parents how to increase their own distress tolerance by introducing them to what is normal and healthy.  So many times, parents apply their own experience of childhood to their children’s experiences and prematurely intervene believing that they are preventing their children from having the same terrible childhood experience when, in fact, nothing of the sort was happening for their children.  A therapist would point that out and help a parent gain insight into their own beliefs and feelings about their own childhood experiences.  In this way, a parent would be given an opportunity to heal and grow, and their children would be given an opportunity to individuate from their parents which is vital to proper development.  A therapist would also be able to differentiate between normal anxiety and clinical anxiety, and, therefore, make treatment recommendations.  Clinical anxiety is crippling and must be treated.  No parent should be attempting to treat that in-home alone.  No dog will help that.  No amount of control will change it.

In the end, parents get to be parents, and they learn to allow others into their life experiences.  We need outside resources when it comes to raising our kids.  It is hard sometimes, but, as with any new experience, be it sex or trying a new thing like therapy, we will be anxious.  But, normal anxiety is a sign that we are growing.

So, go with it.  See where it takes you.  See where it takes your kids.