Anxiety: About Those Years I Didn’t Speak

The behavior charts for my oldest child in kindergarten weren’t great. Her offenses ranged from concerning (biting a classmate the first week of school) to keepsake-worthy (see below). But far and away, her most common offense was socializing to an excessive degree. And while I did have a talk with her about being respectful to her teacher and the appropriate and inappropriate times to talk with friends, I must admit that I felt relieved. Having a talkative, extroverted kindergartener wasn’t anything I worried about. Even if at times disruptive, it was age-appropriate behavior. And at least she was proving herself safe from my greater fear: that she’d inherit my social anxiety.

For the record, I’m told they did laugh.

I was always described as shy. I heard that word so often that I hated it. In school, it was considered problematic. We were expected to contribute and to answer questions when called upon. But to me, it was unbearably stressful and never did I feel so uncomfortable as when put on the spot in front of the entire class. I feared being put in this position. With sweaty palms and my head bowed low, I still couldn’t avoid it. My mind would go blank and I wasn’t able to process the question, let alone answer it. When it was as simple as reading a question and answering on paper, I had no problem. I was listening, I made good grades, but I wasn’t contributing.

My first grade teacher’s response was to put me on a daily smiley face chart system. The more I answered in-class questions with “I don’t know,” the more she called on me, and the more frowns I received. With the chart a failure, she became frustrated and one day locked me in a supply closet for the second half of the day until I answered her question. I was let out only after the other kids had been dismissed and she had talked with my mom. I never did answer her question. I was also too embarrassed to tell my parents that I had spent most of the day in a closet because I couldn’t bring myself to speak.

From there, my anxiety only became worse as I switched schools for third grade, where I still struggled to contribute to class discussion. My new school’s counselor tried to get me to talk to a dolphin hand puppet. More humiliating but equally as ineffective as the supply closet. Worse, my “shyness” around my classmates became a complete inability to speak to them. I badly wanted to, but some invisible force made it so overwhelming and debilitating that I couldn’t.

Young kids don’t know how to react to that. I was officially the weird kid, and attending a K-8 school, I would remain so for many more years. I had no school friends. None. I was at best ignored and at worst, bullied. School was seven hours of non-stop daily torture. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, not one adult mentioned anxiety. Only relatively recently have I discovered that this form of severe social anxiety actually has a name and that there are others like me.

Looking back now, I feel angry for the way this problem was treated and sad for the kid I was, a kid who missed out on a major part of childhood, the lifelong friendships that never were. My experience at least gave me a very thick-skin, a new confidence once I learned to stick up for myself, and a good sense of humor that has allowed me to eventually overcome a lot of my anxiety (though I still stumble over words, struggle to speak as easily as I write, and panic when I feel overlooked).

My childhood taught me to be hyper-aware of my own kids’ feelings and behaviors and to make sure that I wasn’t relying solely on others to identify and treat any issues. I feel the importance to model positive social interaction for them, as much as I’d still prefer to stay home and not participate in any school-related groups or activities. It’s good for all of us. And it’s worth it, doing what I can to make sure they never have to experience the pain and helplessness of anxiety that I did. Or the indignity of being forced to speak to a dolphin.

Katie is a SAHM mom of three, a bad driver of a heavily dented minivan, a KC native, and an owner of a messy house in Overland Park (and not in a cute “Look at my kids playing in unfolded laundry!” way, but more in a “Don’t stick your hands under the couch until we’ve investigated that smell!” way). She loves long family road trips, dogs with people names, and using her rare kid-free time to go to concerts and movies. She hates speaking in third person and people with dog names. She is most proud of her children when they sing David Bowie songs in public and express independence in ways that cause strangers concern.


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