Anxiety. I thought I understood the concept of this term, but find I learn something new about this “condition” on a regular basis. I have read countless articles about exceptional children and their tendencies to exhibit anxiety. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s first start at the beginning.
When my son began second grade things seemed a bit “off” right from the start. My ordinarily easy-going child suddenly seemed to worry about every little detail. Was his backpack the right style? Was his lunch healthy enough? Had he remembered to pack all the homework assignments into the correct folder? These worries were so uncharacteristically important to him, I began to take note of each concern so that I could discuss the sudden onset of anxiety when visiting with the pediatrician.
As the days passed, the stress seemed to worsen. Each day brought more worries, more concerns, and above all, an increasingly unhappy child. A few weeks into the first semester of second grade the phone calls from the teacher began.
The first call outlined the fact that James was having “fits of rage” during class. At first I believed the teacher was overreacting by categorizing James’ behavior as “worrisome” but the teacher’s assessment of the situation proved to be all too accurate. Ms. W’s very poignant description of James’ behavior was spot-on. I witnessed the worrisome behavior for the first time at home during a routine homework assignment. We were undertaking a simple math review assignment when James made a very common mistake, and he had a complete meltdown because he did not want to use the eraser to make a mark on his paper.
When I use the term “meltdown” most parents picture a toddler having a temper-tantrum. You know the behavior – the red faced, wailing, throw-yourself-on-the-floor performance piece that is engineered for maximum drama. That is nothing compared to the meltdown that ensued because of a simple addition error. James threw the workbook across the kitchen. He shouted, “I hate this math! I hate this class! I am too stupid for second grade!” The tears flowed freely and the rage was unprecedented. I had never witnessed anything like this from my child. The most troublesome act was directed at himself. James took his pencil and started stabbing at the back of his left hand. He repeatedly stabbed at his hand harder and harder with each blow until he drew blood. I wrestled the pencil out of his hand and tried to calm him with words. He slapped himself on the side of his head harder and harder with each hit and kept saying, “I don’t want to mess up all the time. I don’t want to mess up all the time.”
I had no idea what to do, so I just put my arms around him and hugged him and let him cry. He shouted incoherently and made awful guttural noises I can only liken to the sound of a dog growling. I just continued to hug him and after about 10 minutes he was calm enough to pick up the workbook and sit back down at the kitchen table with an eraser and carefully remove the errant number from the page. He silently finished his math homework and we both went into the living room to watch a movie together and decompress.
We sat and cuddled and watched a few Pixar short films to lighten the mood. That night we read a few extra chapters after bath time and I cuddled with him in his bed for a while — something I had not done for many months. He seemed peaceful as he drifted off to sleep. I didn’t sleep at all that evening. It was the first of many sleepless nights in our house.