Social Anxiety- You Do You

Taking a look at the anxiety of a child from the perspective of hindsight.

Social anxiety is a huge thing right now. I don’t know if its an increasing phenomenon or that it’s just being documented more, but there seems to be a lot of people, specifically in younger generations that seem to suffer more frequently from anxiety disorders. My daughter, who turns 18 this year struggled a lot with even going to school because she was simply afraid of people.

Now, as the parent- especially in this day and age of inclusion and titles, I struggled with walking the line between being a supportive, nurturing parent and being a parent trying to help their kids grow and develop into productive members of society. I can remember her being really little- maybe not even in school yet and encouraging her to order for herself when we would go out to eat, which she had a VERY hard time doing.

As kids begin to find their own personality, how we as parents and society treat them along the way influences the kind of people they will become.

All kids grow and develop differently. A toddler that is wild and fearless will eventually go through a shy stage, and then one day grow out of it. It was no different for her or her brothers. As she started school and getting older, things got better. She made friends, went to birthday parties, hung out with the close ones over summer holidays- learning to socialize the way we all do growing up. She could order her own food, make phone calls, even ask a stranger for directions when needed… until she couldn’t.

Several years ago when her mother and I divorced, something changed in her. She did not take the split very well and her personality changed a lot. She would have been 14 at the time. Obviously a hard time in a girls’ life and development, but not only did her parents split, her entire world was destroyed.

I am not saying that to be overly dramatic. I have no doubt that 2015/2016 will forever be the worst time of her life. Not only did she have to change schools from her “safe” childhood elementary school, she made the big jump to a bigger city high school. Then when her parents split up, she was forced to move to a different high school when she decided to stay with her mother. Then our house burned down.

Her entire world. Gone. She wasn’t born in that house, but we moved there when she was young enough that she likely has no memory of where we lived before. Her entire life, her history, her sense of home- shattered. Destroyed. Burned to the ground. Her pictures, her souvenirs, her mementos- burned. Her guitar, her room, her posters- all turned to ash. Her bed, her clothes, her home… all gone.

As we all waited for the insurance company to go through the fire and deem it an accident, they put all 3 kids and their mother in a hotel in the town where she was attending high school. And she disengaged. The only friendships she maintained were those still living in the small town where the house was. She would skip classes on a regular basis and would constantly fight with her mother.

Eventually, her mother had enough and threw her out- of the hotel room they were living in.

WHAT KIND OF MONSTER DOES THAT?!?! Your child’s whole world has been taken from her and she is crying out for help so rather than get her help, you decide to toss her aside?!

“More trouble than she is worth” was the text message I got from her when I asked what the hell she was thinking by kicking her out. I get it, she lost a lot in the fire and was having trouble dealing with the loss herself, but be a god-damn parent!

Obviously I went and got my daughter immediately. She hadn’t really spoken to me much since the split- they were all told how horrible of a human being I was by their mom, so I was completely shut out by all 3 kids up until this point. It was definitely awkward at first, but after a few days she came to realize I was still the same silly dad she knew and loved, that loved her unconditionally and would do anything for her. But I could tell things were different.

To start with, she was afraid of the little things. I’m not talking about spiders or snakes, but she was in constant fear of being told no and was constantly in need of approval. My confident little girl now felt she needed to ask permission just to get a glass of milk. Ask if it was OK to take a shower. Ask if it was OK to go to bed.

What. The hell. Happened?

We would work on things like that. I would make sure to try to give her as much freedom to make her own decisions as possible, positive reinforcement whenever I could to try and help build her confidence and self-esteem back up. Then it came time to enroll in school. She was petrified. It didn’t matter that she already had some friends there. It didn’t matter that she already knew the school and the teachers. She did not want to go.

After I collected her that day she was tossed aside by her mother, I remember my Ex telling me that no matter what, I HAD to get her enrolled in school. She NEEDED the social interactions or she was going to withdraw from society completely and have all sorts of problems. On this we agreed.

A friend of mine is a guidance counselor at the high school so I met with him in advance of taking my daughter in for enrollment and he agreed- socializing was going to be key in helping her outgrow this current bout of anxiety. She wanted to take distance learning- online schooling. Her mother and I both felt this was not in her best interest and my guidance counselor friend discussed the option with my daughter explaining there was still some in-school portions to the online schooling.

Eventually she decided that she would just do it and enroll in regular classes. And she was doing great! She was involved in theater in and out of school, she had friends and a social life. She got her drivers license and stretched her comfort zone even further by venturing out on her own. I was so proud of her. She had not only come back to being the strong little girl I raised, but was developing into a strong young woman.

Every time I write about something involving my ex-wife, I feel I have a statement like “and then she did it“, or “I cannot understand what she was thinking“. Here is that point in this blog: My ex-wife did the absolute unthinkable and chose to undo all the parenting and development and progress I had made; she promised my daughter homeschooling if she would move back in with her.

A little more than a year after she kicked my daughter out. A little more than a year after my ex made me promise to not let her talk me into homeschooling because she needed the social interactions. A little more than a year of helping teach my little girl to make decisions for herself again, build up her self-esteem and self-confidence, teaching her that we learn through struggle and adversity.

Her mother gave her the option to take away all the struggle and adversity. Path of least resistance. The easy way out.

A little more than of year of showing my baby girl that I am not the monster I was made out to be, and that all we are is the love we share, snuffed out in an instant by a selfish parent wanting dominion over her children for no reason other than to feel powerful and wanted.

It’s been a little less than 2 years since she moved back in with her mother, and she’s reverted to not talking to me. I am the monster again.

She lives about 6 hours away. I hope she has friends there. I hope she has a social life. I hope she has the opportunity to do things for herself and not have her mother to do everything for her. I hope she is working through her anxiety.

I understand anxiety- at least I think I do. I was the kid that cried when I was told no- even in high school. I got really good at finding ways to hide it, but I had awful anxiety. I was awkward, teased relentlessly and had perpetually sweaty palms. I didn’t want to ever shake hands or have to touch someone for fear of judgment. Group projects terrified me, until I found my niche in high school. My people.

I had desperately wanted that for my daughter. I wanted her to find her people- those that wouldn’t judge her for her insecurities but to embrace them and help her realize that there are far better things to focus her energy on. And she was there! She had those people, she was growing and getting more self-assured every day.

Parenting is hard. Especially when both parents aren’t on the same page, or worse- one is trying to sabotage the other. If you are a parent struggling with a kid’s anxieties, don’t ever make them feel bad for them. Help them through it. Here’s a bit of advice you have likely never heard;

If your kids are hanging out with “the bad crowd”, let them.

That crowd is helping your child get past the problems they think they have by including them. If you have done your job teaching them right from wrong, they will make good decisions regardless of who they hang out with.

Finding others like us allows us to fit in and help find our place. To feel like we are not alone. That’s the whole thing with anxiety- it makes us only want to be alone, but by surrounding ourselves with others that don’t see the anxiety as a crutch, but as a non-entity- then we begin to grow past the anxiety and start accepting ourselves.

As children we want to please our parents. As teenagers we just want to fit in. As adults, we finally learn that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks- you do you.

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