Anxiety on Parade

This week we are down in North Carolina visiting my mother as well as my sister and her family. F loves to come here and her anxiety and defiance have been getting much better so I was looking forward to the trip. However, there are still a few things that still just set her off. One of those things is television. She’s terrified that she’s going to see something scary, and frankly more often than not she does. She was frantic about taking a cab to the airport until we assured her that the car service cars don’t have TV’s like yellow cabs do.

There was some video watching at her school this year and we were able to give her coping mechanisms by working with the school to find her alternative activities. She loves to watch movies, and even public TV shows like Nature. What terrifies her the most is that she doesn’t feel safe if she doesn’t know what she’s going to see. A few times we’ve watched commercial TV, and inevitably there’s a scary commercial with guns. We do what we can to minimize exposure to these things, but sometimes we’re forced to deal with it.

Things got rough when we got to the airport as there are TV’s everywhere, and of course half of the commercials have guns pointing every which way. On one level it’s pretty frustrating to deal with the hysterical crying. I have to carry luggage and her and she’s screaming. She wants a running commentary about whether it’s scary or not. I try to help her come up with coping mechanisms, but holding onto me and screaming isn’t my favorite one.

One one level I understand that I can’t protect her from everything bad in the world, and don’t even want to. On the other had, her reaction makes more than a little sense. Why has it become nearly impossible for us to navigate the world without being inundated with TV’s and violence. I’m pretty inured to it myself, but at the same time I don’t think that I was subjected to it in nearly the same way as kids are growing up today. We have trouble finding restaurants in NY that don’t have TV’s on. Cabs have TV’s. The bagel shop has a TV and the checkout line at our crappy supermarket even has TV’s. F is terrified of them, and as such is basically scared of the world.

F’s anxiety got really out of control last February. All of a sudden it seemed that we couldn’t leave the house. Guns, police, loud noises, strangers, crowded places, restaurants all became off limits. We were kind of taken by surprise by her sudden phobia of everything, so we started asking a lot of questions about how to deal with the situation. One person led us to a book from a series about what to expect in each year of childhood. Age 7 was subtitled, “life in a minor key”. It became clear pretty quickly that we were experiencing age appropriate behavior… on steroids.

After talking to her a bit, we started to realize that African American history month was kind of a trigger. She goes to a primarily African American school and they made a big deal out of African American history month this year as well as last. In fact last year she wasn’t even aware of (or at least hadn’t put words to the concept) of race before there was such a focus on it. The other day she asked me if there was a white history month and I tried to explain that every month is kind of white history month. She didn’t really buy that, which makes sense in some ways, because as the school is so heavily African American (combined with the year of Obama) that wasn’t really true at her school.

This year African American history month was an issue because there was a lot of focus on violence. The one thing that stuck with F about MLK Jr. was the way that he died a violent death by gunshot. She also learned that Malcom X was shot after being accused of sticking his hand in somone else’s pocket. Who knew that while ferrying escaped slaves up north, Harriet Tubman was often required to force nervous escapees to continue onward at gunpoint for fear that they would be tortured into giving up details of the underground railroad if they returned to their owners?

All of this talk of violence made her terrified of guns, which made her scared of cops, and the discussion of violence made her want to avoid school. F isn’t shy about expressing her feelings or her fears. The screaming and yelling started to have a very detrimental effect on her younger sister as well. We didn’t want to force her into situations that made her uncomfortable but we also needed to exist in the world so we were in a tough position. We knew intuitively that there was a, get back up on the horse, aspect to some of the situations. We also knew that we couldn’t let her get away with staying home from school, but that was one of the hardest things to handle. She had a pretty chaotic classroom environment this year. A well meaning teacher with poor classroom control skills coupled with a couple of kids that shouldn’t have been in the mainstream population led to an escalation of bad behavior by several other kids, including F.

Before her anxiety got out of control we had a long struggle with defiance. We had gotten that under control to some degree by learning to stay calmer and listen better. It seemed like almost immediately after getting over that hurdle the anxiety became unbearable. The same focus on calmness and consistency helped. However, at times her hysterical reactions were almost too much to bear.

Over the course of the last 5 months or so the anxiety has gotten better bit by bit. For this reason, her reaction to the TV’s yesterday was almost harder to bear. It helped a little to realize that her reaction made a lot of sense; to put myself in her mindset and recognize the absurdity of being in a situation in which it was literally impossible to find a sight line that didn’t include a TV. She got over it by the time we got on the plane and handled the more TV limited airport at our destination with a great deal more calmness.

She even let us go out to dinner last night. My mother watched the girls and they played with their cousins. It was one of the first times in months that we were able to leave them at night with no drama. We had a great meal with a good friend and for the first time in years I felt like someone other than a parent.

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