Talking to Kids About Anxiety (or, how to destroy The Clam)

When Puck was diagnosed with anxiety a few years ago, he drew a dark but beautiful picture to show what it felt like. The picture shows a dark, stormy world, and little Puck off to the side, trying to get to the safety of his home. It looked scary, and I felt sad when I looked at.  One thing I’ve learned about mental illness, though, is that what looks sad sometimes isn’t. And what looks funny and entertaining is sometimes scarier than you can imagine.

Recently, I asked him if it still felt like that for him. He thought about it for a minute.

“No,” he said. “It feels like I’m The Clam.”

“The Clam?”

“Yeah. The Clam costume,” he explained. “I feel like I’m in it all the time. I hate it. But I have no choice because that’s part of being at school. I’m trapped inside something I hate, but it’s all anyone can see and they think it’s who I am. I can’t wait to get it off and never see it again, but I’m trapped.”

At Puck’s school, the kids put on elaborate plays each year — plays they create themselves. They write the scripts, make the props, and choreograph the musical numbers. It falls to the parents, alas, to create the costumes for the sometimes odd characters the students develop. One year, Puck’s role in the play was The Clam.fullsizeoutput_27f

The Clam costume was a triumph of my glue gun and some craft foam. I was so proud to have created something that actually resembled a clam. Puck, however, was not thrilled. Being in a play was anxiety-inducing enough. Having to wear a costume in which he felt ridiculous made it worse. He wore it because he had to, but he was miserable. To this day, he despises any reference to The Clam. So when he said he felt like he was trapped as The Clam, I knew he has been feeling very miserable, indeed.

Puck was out of school for almost a month recently, while we tried to get his anxiety under control. After he’d been out of school for a week, I started getting emails from his friends’ parents, wondering if everything was okay. I answered them back honestly, and got so much warmth and support in return. Every email that said, “I get it, can I do anything to help?” was a balm to my own anxious soul. The more people who knew and understood, the easier I felt I could breathe.

I wanted the same for Puck. I didn’t want his absence from school to be a mystery, or for his anxiety to be increased by the struggle to find the words to explain what was going on. I didn’t want him to be trapped in the damn Clam.

If he’d been out of school due to a physical illness, people would have already known. In our tightly-knit school community, the parents would’ve rallied together. They’d have been bringing us soup, and dropping in to visit and make sure we were okay.

No one brings soup, though, when it’s a mental illness.

I really want to change this. In my day job, I work to fight the stigma people living with mental illness face. I’m committed to extending that fight to my daily life. I want everyone to bring the soup, whether a person’s illness is physical or mental.

I didn’t want the burden to be on Puck to explain why he’d been out of school. I suggested to his teachers that it might help if they could have a discussion with the class before Puck came back — that this could be an opportunity to be open about mental health, and to chip away at stigma. They were in complete agreement. (Puck didn’t want to be there for discussion, although he really liked that it was going to happen.)

The teachers held the discussion the day before Puck returned to school. They later told me that the students had completely engaged, and the discussion continued well after the period ended.  Many students their own experiences with anxiety (their own or a family member), and had been very accepting and concerned. They asked good questions, and wanted to know how to help. Should they hug Puck, or high five him when they saw him? His teacher said that if they usually hug him or high five him, then sure…otherwise, treat him as they would normally do. He pointed out that while many people want to be close to someone who’s upset, in Puck’s case, it’s good to give him space. That seems to have been an “a-ha” moment for many of the kids. Our instinct is typically to stay close to someone in distress to comfort them. For someone with anxiety, that’s sometimes not the best approach.

The discussion the teachers led was based on some ‘speaking notes’ they asked me to develop for them, to help explain learning disabilities and anxiety to a group of 10 and 11 year olds. I know from trying to find supports to explain these things to Puck and his sister that there isn’t a lot out there, so I was happy to create a resource for the school. It’s based on discussions I’ve had with his psychologists, a neurologist, and other specialists. It also reflects Puck’s own input — what he wanted his classmates to know, and how it feels for him. I’m including the tips here, in case it can help anyone else who might be faced with the same sort of discussion.

Puck’s return to school went well (knock wood – it’s only been a few days). The anxiety is notably reduced, and he’s so happy to be back with his friends. I’m hoping that in time, he can get rid of The Clam for good.

Tips for explaining anxiety /learning disabilities:

  •  Puck has been away from school because he wasn’t feeling well. Just like our bodies sometimes get sick, our minds can, too, and we need to take time to feel better.
  • Puck’s had something called ‘anxiety’. Everyone feels anxiety sometimes. It can make you worried or scared. Our bodies rely on anxiety to tell us when we should be scared and protect ourselves. It’s normal – for example, if you’re on a rollercoaster, or getting ready to take a test or do a performance.

(Brainstorm what it feels like when you’re anxious:  sweaty palms, heart beating fast, butterflies in stomach, etc)

  •  Anxiety is like your body’s smoke alarm. It can protect us when there’s an actual fire, but sometimes the smoke alarm is too sensitive and goes off when there isn’t really a fire (like when you burn toast in the toaster). Like a smoke alarm, anxiety can help us when it works right. But when it goes off when there’s no real danger, we need to fix it.
  • Puck’s been working on fixing it, but it takes time. When he comes back, he’ll still feel uncomfortable and worried sometimes.

(Brainstorm: what things make you feel better when you’re anxious? What makes it worse?)

  • When Puck feels anxious, he needs some space. He likes to be alone for a bit to feel calm. So you may see him leave the room sometimes. There are also some things at school that make his anxiety worse, so he may not be taking part in everything that we do as a class.
  • Anyone can have anxiety. It’s normal, and when you get help for it, it can get much better.
  • One of the reasons Puck’s been feeling anxious is because he has some learning disabilities. We all have strengths and weaknesses at school, and Puck has some differences in the way he learns that mean school needs to look a bit different for him.
  • Lots of people have learning disabilities. Some very famous people have had them – like Albert Einstein, Leonardo di Vinci, and Justin Timberlake! Having a learning disability doesn’t mean you can’t learn things. It means you learn things in different ways.

What is a learning disability like?

  • All the information we learn travels around the brain and gets stored in specific areas, where our brain can find it when it needs it. It’s like our brain is made up of millions of highways, with cars travelling super-fast all the time and putting information in garages.
  • When you have a LD, all the parts you need to be smart are in your brain. Nothing is missing or broken. The difference between your brain and one that doesn’t have an LD is that your brain gets traffic jams on certain highways. That means that it takes your cars longer to travel to information garages. Eventually, they do get there.
  • Think about the last time you were stuck in a real traffic jam – maybe you were on your way to school, or soccer practice, or a friend’s home for a play date. How did it feel to sit in traffic? Were you frustrated? angry? bored? annoyed? tired? You probably got to where you needed to go, but it just took a long time.
  •  The good news is that there are tricks that people can use to make learning easier. These tricks are like “side roads.” Using side roads helps your cars get to where they need to go faster. Puck is learning some of those tricks, and his teachers are helping him find the side roads.
  • Using side roads encourages you to be creative. Maybe that’s why so many people like Puck end up being successful artists, singers, athletes and business people!
  • One of the great things about this school is that we know everyone is different, and we want to help you all do your best. So some kids might sit closer to the teacher to help them see, hear or pay attention. Some kids get extra help. Puck’s work, and the way teachers work with him, will look a bit different, too. You many notice differences in things like where he sits, or the things he works on in class.
  • The way Puck learns is different. The way he works in our class will look a little different. But he’s not different. He’s still Puck, and he still loves dogs, planes and hockey. He’s looking forward to being back here with all his friends, and to being part of our class.

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