Some years ago I was attending my second Home Dad Con, a gathering of stay-at-home dads to discuss parenting over the course of a couple of days. It was my second year attending, and though I had enjoyed the first year somewhat, it was not going well the second time around. I was instead having a full anxiety attack. I was avoiding other people, even those I counted as friends, skipping breakout sessions or else hiding in the back of the room, so on and so forth. I got very little out of the con that year, because I was having trouble interacting with people at all. It wasn’t until several years later that I worked up the courage to attend another one.
I’m certainly not alone in dealing with severe anxiety. I’ve talked with other dads who also have difficulties in social situations, even ones that by any conventional measure should be fairly normal and easy to deal with. But for people who suffer from anxiety disorders, sometimes these normal, everyday situations can become unbearable.
For me, crowded situations are the worst, even in familiar locations. A neighborhood park with an unusually busy playground, a favorite museum on a very full day, even our home when loved ones are visiting. It has nothing to do with these places or people, but it can make it very difficult to function in an even remotely normal way.
What does that mean, exactly? It means I panic, and I can’t effectively process or understand what’s going on around me. The noise and chaos of such a situation makes it difficult for me to identify people, to separate sounds and voices from each other, and even to breath. When possible, my initial reaction is to flee these situations, and sometimes that’s fairly easy to do. At a neighborhood playground it’s fairly easy scoop up my children and head home, but if we’ve driven an hour to a museum in the city, it’s harder to justify leaving. And if we’re in a social situation where there’s no easy way to leave, the lack of an exit can make an anxiety attack even worse than normal.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m far from the only person who deals with social anxiety, though it’s vastly different for different people. It can be fairly mild or debilitating, and although I don’t think I quite fall into the later category sometimes it feels like it.
None of this is said to complain, but merely to explain what it’s like to attempt to raise my children while also dealing with these issues. As an unschooling family, I try to find opportunities in line with their interests, but sometimes it’s hard to follow through. I’ve backed out of playdates with other unschooling/homeschooling families out of anxiety and fear. I’ve taken my kids and headed home from museums and zoos simply because I couldn’t handle the crowds or chaos. These situations are not ideal for them, and though they’re generally understanding, sometimes they’re very disappointed. And on occasions other people interpret it as rudeness or anger when that’s far from what is intended. Instead I’m trying to survive and take care of my kids without having a complete breakdown. Sometimes that’s very difficult to do.
I certainly don’t have any hard and fast answers on how to deal with anxiety, but here are a few thoughts to keep in mind if you have friends or family that struggle with social anxiety.
Spontaneous situations are the worst
Obviously the concept of ‘spontaneous’ can vary from person to person. For me, having a couple of weeks warning before an intense social situation helps a lot. It doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be able to handle it, but mental preparation generally makes it more likely that I’ll make it through. Routine social situations, such as attending church regularly, also help because it’s a familiar situation where I know generally what to expect.
Don’t make assumptions
Don’t assume that someone dealing with social anxiety is angry, or doesn’t want to see you. Instead ask them if there’s anything you can do to help. Talk to them and actually listen, without telling them how to behave or manage it. Everyone who suffers from anxiety attacks is different, and hearing their story might help you understand them a bit more.
It’s not just strangers
It doesn’t have anything to do with strangers, necessarily. Family gatherings, even small ones, or social situations with friends can still make me panic. Sometimes even my children surrounding me can make me anxious, though I’m more used to dealing with them than I am anyone else. It certainly doesn’t mean I don’t love them, but it does mean that sometimes I need to get away for a few minutes of quiet to breath.
Don’t assume that because it was okay once, it’ll always be that way. There have been times where I’ve had an anxiety attack in one situation, while in another nearly identical situation I was just fine. It’s not something that can be controlled or even fully predicted.
Anxiety makes enjoying life hard
There are times where I get anxious before even entering a situation, to they point that I back out. Sometimes it’s something like avoiding a playdate or meeting with other parents and their kids, others times it’s purely personal. Like dropping out of a local concert band or deciding to not attend a chess tournament that I had been looking forward to for weeks.
It happens in normal situations
You might assume that social anxiety attacks happen in unfamiliar situations, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes fairly normal places and interactions can be very difficult to handle. Just because everything seems normal and calm to you doesn’t mean it feels that way to some dealing with anxiety.
Social anxiety is real
Anxiety attacks aren’t a plea for help or an attempt to justify certain types of behaviors. They’re very real, and although coping techniques may help to an extent, there’s no simple solution. As I mentioned before, don’t assume that they’re angry or rude. Instead, try to understand what they’re going through instead of making judgements. Maybe that’s the best way anyone can help.
Obviously not everyone who deals with social anxiety is a parent, but it’s particularly pressing to me because I don’t want my children to deal with these same issues. I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do to ensure that, but I don’t want them to have difficulties in making friends or maintaining friendships because they sometimes panic in social situations. I don’t want them to have difficulties with family gatherings when the noise and number of people makes them panic. I don’t want them to live with these same issues, even as I frequently fail to conquer them.
There are things that we pass on to our children that we have no control over. Superficial things such as eye or skin color come to mind, but other things are less clear. I may not be able to guarantee that my children won’t go through my particular struggles, but at the least I can at least model talking about them. Perhaps by writing and discussing the things that cause me the most difficulty, I can help them understand the importance of facing their problems directly.