“He never talks in class.”
“She just won’t sit still.”
“They don’t get along with others.”
Kids internalize these messages over time and turn them into mantras like, “I am a bad kid.” They repeat these in their head over and over again, believing they are true.
For me, it was, “There is something wrong with me.”
My big emotion was social anxiety. It followed me everywhere I went. When a teacher would call on me to read aloud, I felt a wave of panic surge from my core and flow down to my toes. It made my hands shake, my heart pound, and my hands sweat. As soon as my anxiety hit me, it completely took over my body. I would try to reason with it and remind myself to take a breath. I’d plead with it to go away. But it defied me with every flutter of my heart and dry swallow.
I began to have anxiety about my anxiety. I couldn’t pay attention in class because I’d be focused on how to avoid being called on. I sat in the back, kept my arms superglued to the desk, and cast my eyes downward as if that made me more invisible. I watched other students speak effortlessly and even volunteer to share; it felt impossible for me. When teachers told my family that I struggled to speak up, I believed something was deeply wrong with me. I didn’t want to go to school anymore. I was suffering, but no one said anything, especially me. I looked normal from the outside. And because I excelled in sports, had friends, and did well on tests, people thought I was fine.
“Why don’t you talk in class?” my parents asked, nudged, and finally demanded. I didn’t give them a response. After years of low participation grades in school, they assumed I was an aloof teenager and didn’t care about school. I told myself the same. It was easier not to like school than face my anxiety. One morning during my senior year of high school, I was in the shower thinking about my day, and I broke down. My anxiety escalated to suffocation. In an instant, my throat closed, like an invisible demon had grabbed hold of my windpipe. I dropped to the base of the tub and swallowed endless air and yelled for my mom in between gasps. When we arrived at the emergency room, they ran a series of tests but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Instead of being honest with the doctors, I evaded their questions. They ultimately diagnosed me with vertigo, but in reality, it was my first panic attack. The panic attacks worsened throughout my senior year and into my 20’s.
I never talked to anyone about my social anxiety. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I addressed it and practiced coping strategies to regain control. After 15 years of facing it alone and unnamed, I finally feel I have the upper hand on my anxiety. Most importantly, I’ve learned that there isn’t anything wrong with me.
Kids experience emotions more intensely than adults do. On the one hand, they are lucky to feel excitement and joy at a level that adults can’t achieve, but they also feel deeper fear, frustration, and sadness. We need to help kids understand that their big emotions don’t have to be a big problem. It doesn’t make them bad kids. With the support of loved ones and with the right coping strategies, they can be in control of their big emotions.
My wife and I are four weeks away from having our first child. I have been thinking about big emotions a lot recently. How will I talk to my child about the inevitable emotional struggles that come with life? Parents want to protect their children, but we must also prepare them for what lies ahead. I want my children to grow up knowing that they are in control of their emotions and not the other way around. I hope to have the courage to share my story with them and help them navigate the big, messy, wonderful, and complex emotions of life.