The first time my daughter suffered a panic attack, she was 11. It was terrifying. She was hyperventilating, gasping for air and shaking uncontrollably, as tears streamed down her face and her stomach heaved.
All because she had worn the wrong soccer jersey to her weekly practice.
I’d never witnessed a panic attack before. I had no experience with anxiety. But just as I had kissed her booboos better in the past, I wanted to make this all better for her too. Driving home to retrieve the proper jersey would fix everything, right? She said it would. But as for fixing the root of the problem, I wasn't so sure. Deep down, very quietly, my mom instinct was telling me not to do it—that I'd be feeding a monster, and while that may quiet it, it wouldn't destroy it.
So I listened to my inner voice. I told her I wasn't going to get the jersey. Can't lie—she cried, and begged, and then cried more. But I stood strong and stayed calm, rubbing her back and repeating, "I'm right here. You're okay," until the panic had run its course. Then, together we walked onto the field and I explained to the coach that my daughter had worn the wrong jersey. He smiled, assured her it was no big deal, and encouraged her to join the rest of her teammates dribbling soccer balls around pylons.
Panic attack number two occurred a few months later, the night before her school’s annual cross-country race. My kid loves running. In previous school years, she had eagerly signed up for the cross-country team and looked forward to the daily practices and the annual multi-school meet. Well-buffered by hundreds of pint-sized runners, she’s always placed within the top quarter.
But this time was a bit different. Her school was holding its own mini cross-country meet on their grounds, meaning the buffering of runners would be quite diminished. Her every move would be on full display without an ample padding of runners surrounding her. The entire school would be witness if she were to fall down, come in last or fail to finish.
As the event approached, my poor girl was at war with herself, panicked with worry. I was clueless to it all until bedtime the night prior. As I was tucking her in, the symptoms started, just as they had that day on the soccer field: tears running down her face, completely out of breath, stomach heaving.
I sat by her side and together we waited for the panic to dissipate. I calmly assured her that it would pass, and that I wasn’t going to leave her until she felt better. It took 20 minutes, but slowly, the tears stopped, her breathing returned to normal and her stomach calmed. And then she told me everything: With only four other girls in her grade competing, there was no way she could be inconspicuous. She didn’t want to go through with it.
Once again, my baby was hurting and scared and of course I wanted to fix it. Why shouldn’t I just let her drop out? It’s a silly, insignificant school race, for God’s sake. A tiny blip in the life of a child soon to spread her wings and experience bigger and better things.
But, again, my instinct whispered loudly: This seemingly tiny blip is actually a crossroads. And the choice she made here could pave the way of many choices in her future.
I won’t lie: I wanted her to run the race. As her mother, I knew how much was riding on whether she faced her anxiety head-on and pushed past it to learn that it’s always better to take chances in life, no matter whether you succeed or fail. I'm no psychologist, but I felt strongly that if she allowed her anxiety to hold her back in this one, seemingly insignificant event, it would continuously hold her back in life—when she had to face unpleasantness, discomfort or dread, when dealing with a tough exam or an intimidating interview, when challenged by anything that could jangle her nerves.
So I improvised my way through a conversation. We talked about what she was most afraid of (coming in last) and the worst-case scenario of this (being made fun of). We discussed the pros and cons of participating and not participating. I reminded her of the soccer jersey incident. By the end of our talk, I could see she was feeling better, stronger—but still not sure what she should do. This is when I donned my mother-as-advisor hat and told her I was going to give her my two cents, which in a nutshell was this: "I know deep down you want to run. I think if you don’t, if you give in to this anxiety, you will be making a mistake. I believe that if you run, no matter the outcome, you will show the anxiety that you are the boss—that it has no control over you."
I told her to think about what I said, and to sleep on it.
The next morning, she said she would run. Whether she was buoyed by my advice or pressured by it, I'll never be sure. What I do know is, sitting in the stands at the cross-country meet, watching her wait for her turn to run, my heart was in my throat. Had I done the right thing? Should I have convinced her to run or left the decision entirely up to her? What if she just couldn’t do it? What if she had another panic attack—right here and now—in front of the whole school?
I could see she was holding back tears right up until the moment the teacher yelled “Go!” And then, like a shot, she was off.
It doesn’t matter how she placed. All that matters is that she ran the race— into the unknown, straight toward the source of all her anxiety.
When it was over, I ran to where she lay on the grass, trying to catch her breath. I told her how proud I was of her—and the smile radiating from her breathless face was answer enough as to how she herself felt.
I don’t want my children to be anxious. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I believe that means that I have to allow them to be anxious. That school race was three years ago, and although she still sometimes gets a case of nerves, she hasn’t had an anxiety attack since.
Note: Childhood anxiety isn’t always treatable at home, and doesn't always go away on its own. Contact your child’s doctor if you are concerned.
This article was originally published online in August 2018.