When Your Teen Has Crippling Anxiety

I sit with my neighbors, drinking wine.

“Amanda is at State U. She’s so happy there. She joined a sorority. And poor girl, she’s been sick three times with colds just since September, all those kids living in the dorm sharing germs.”

It’s the same State U where my husband went. The State U whose colors festoon our neighborhood before every football game, even though we’re two hours away by car.

“Parker doesn’t miss me, but he misses the dog!”

Everyone laughs.

I paint on a smile. I pretend it’s fine. My belly burns with jealousy, worry, and anger at a target I can’t even identify. I’m happy for their kids, and my anger has nowhere to go.

My daughter has crippling anxiety
My daughter had a panic attack on the way to her appointment with the registrar. (Shutterstock/Tommaso79)

My daughter isn’t at the State U. She’s at home, going to community college, and seeing a therapist for crippling anxiety.

We tried visiting colleges at all the “right” times. Junior year. Senior year. She looked at me like a panic-stricken deer and said no. She didn’t want to go. It was too scary.

She had a panic attack the first day at her volunteer job this summer. She didn’t know where to go or what to say. She couldn’t go up to a stranger and say, “I’m new. Where do I go?” I tried to help in a million back-and-forth text messages. And she almost went home, until another volunteer found her and showed her the right room.

She had a panic attack on a visit to the registrar’s office at her college where she needed to sort out a problem with her registration. Not in the registrar’s office. In the hallway outside the registrar’s office. She had an appointment. She was going to do this on her own. I got another million text messages.

“I can’t do this, Mom. I can’t.”

“Open the door, honey.”

“No mom, I can’t.”

And she didn’t open the door. She skipped her appointment and came home, because she could not open the door and talk to a stranger without me.

In Arnold Lobel’s wonderful children’s book Frog and Toad Together which I read as a child and then read to my own kids, is a story called “The Garden.” Frog has a beautiful garden. Toad wants one too and plants seeds. Frog warns Toad that gardening is a lot of work. Toad’s seeds don’t sprout right away. Toad yells at the ground to make the seeds grow. Toad reads stories to the seeds, he plays music to the seeds, and he worries that the seeds are afraid of the dark. Of course, eventually, the seeds grow, when they’re ready, and Toad agrees that gardens are a lot of work.

And I have to stop myself, every day, from yelling at the seeds. Playing music to the seeds. Comparing my kid to other people’s kids (like Toad compared his bare earth to Frog’s garden). I worry that I’ve done it all wrong.

How did I not see this and prevent this? What did I do wrong? Why did I not spot that her shyness and introversion was actually full-blown social anxiety? Why is her brother Mr. Social who can talk to everyone, everywhere, and somehow learned these skills in the same house, from the same set of parents? What will it mean for her life that she’s not going away to college at eighteen to live in a dorm like I did? Like her dad did? What does it mean that she doesn’t want to go away like I was dying to at her age?

I don’t know. And asking these questions is yelling at the seeds.

Instead, we spend our Thursday mornings in a therapist’s office. She’s learning about eye contact, how to calm the worry, and what to do when everything goes stuck in her brain and she wants to run home. We talk about how to ask a stranger for help. What to say to a professor, to a person in the financial aid office, or to a fellow student. We’re working toward her going to therapy sessions without me.

I jump ahead to all the things stacked in my mind that she is so woefully unprepared for. How to interview for a job. How to interact with peers at work. How to look her manager in the eye and say the hard things. “I can’t meet that deadline and here’s why, but here’s what I can do by that date.”

I think about her peers who are planning study-abroad years, driving themselves to college, living away from home, interviewing strangers for the school paper, and meeting lifelong friends. My best friend for the last thirty years was my college roommate. And my daughter is missing out on all this, still living at home.

I’m yelling at the seeds again. I’m worrying that the seeds are afraid of the dark.

Breathe, mama. Breathe.

Beneath the ground where I can’t see, the seeds are sprouting. Her therapist can see already that she’s learning new things, but it’s slow and almost imperceptible. “Can you see your hair growing?” he asks. (Can Toad see his seeds growing?) She will be ready when she’s ready.

She’s kept her volunteer job one day a week at the nonprofit where she worked this summer, where she has to talk to strangers. She commutes to her college on public transit. She managed an appointment with a professor this week.

There isn’t a law that says she has to go away to college at eighteen or never. She will move to the dorm at nineteen, or at twenty, or at twenty-one, and all those potential lifelong friends will still be there. (All the state universities have dorms just for transfer students. I checked).

She’ll find the professors she loves and the ones she hates. She’ll have a roommate or two or three. She’ll have late nights, ridiculous outings for pizza and beer at 2:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, parties, silliness, seriousness, romance, heartbreak, and discovery of who she is and what she wants out of her life and her education. It will all be there.

And I will learn to stop yelling at the seeds

The author wishes to remain anonymous.


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Community College Was The Right Choice For My Son And I No Longer Feel Guilty

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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