Do you remember your first sleep away camp? The excitement of packing your sleeping bag and travel-sized toiletries; the anticipation of meeting your cabin-mates and counselor and the twisty-turny bus ride? I do. It was so exciting! At least until bedtime.
When I was 11-years old I went to summer camp for a whole week. It was completely overwhelming for me. The evening routine of camp life was foreign and I wasn't ready for the anxiety that came alone with it.
My poor camp counselor. Stationed in a cabin with a dozen girls, she was probably no older than 18. She had to comfort multiple girls with tears and tummy aches those first few nights. If I could find her on Facebook and thank her for being so gentle and kind all those years ago, I would.
That first camp experience was the beginning of a series of unsuccessful sleepovers and weekend getaways with friends. It was the beginning of calls home to mom so I could be rescued and delivered to the comfort of my familiar home. It was the impetus to my childhood anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric condition among adults and most say that they experienced their first symptoms as children. Affecting one in eight children, anxiety disorders are also the most common psychiatric condition in children. But the good news is, they are also the easiest to treat. I know all this because my son has anxiety.
The signs were familiar: he had a hard time at sleepovers and was nervous about school after vacations and breaks. Sometimes he couldn't fall asleep at night, or we'd get a call from school about tummy aches. I told him he was like me - a night owl - and showed him what I did to relax. I told him I used to get nervous about those things too. Then I prayed his wouldn't grow into the same anxiety that I had as a child.
But it did. Two months ago, when we were ready to write the check for science camp, his face paled and he looked like he was going to be sick. "I'm not sure I can go to camp, mom." I immediately knew how he felt. He couldn't even talk about it, he was so distraught. My heart broke a little.
As a parent who knows what it feels like, I knew I needed help. I found an excellent book that gave me a greater understanding of childhood anxiety and explained how to help my son. (Oh how I wish I'd read this book when I was young...) First, we had to talk about his anxiety. We gave it a name: "The Exaggerator," and practiced some new relaxation techniques. We also learned that the key to battling anxiety is rewiring the brain to find a healthy thought path instead of the default, "worry" path. Makes perfect sense. The book showed us know to do that. So we practiced. FOR WEEKS!
With some successful sleepovers, his confidence grew. With "The Exaggerator" to blame, his heart began to heal. And by the final deadline to turn in our science camp check, he felt ready for the challenge. His exact words: "Mom, I'm not going to let "The Exaggerator" take away the fun in my life!" He was more secure about camp and I was more hopeful too. In the last two weeks, we've had lots of questions. We've gone over various scenarios. We've practiced all our tricks and tools in a final attempt to reinforce his sensibilities and fully prepare him for camp next week.
And on Tuesday, as I wave good-bye to my brave boy, I know in my heart he will be well-equipped to fight off "The Exaggerator."
I hope you never experience the BIG, ugly side of worry but if your child is experiencing symptoms of anxiety, don't ignore it, find help. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America website: ADAA.org has great information. The book that worked for us was Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar Chansky.
Thanks for listening!
(Published in O.C. Register 4/25/14)