I wish more books about kids’ stress and anxiety had been around when I was in 5th grade. I remember being dropped off by my parents at a dance and walking into the darkened room with music booming. I was clad in an ankle-length Laura Ashley skirt, matching sweater and coordinated headband. Had I known more, perhaps I wouldn’t have stood plastered against the wall, sweating bullets and wishing I was invisible for the entire two hours.
Looking back as an armchair psychologist, I think was more than just shy back then; I probably had some social anxiety. Whereas shyness is basically inhibition in social settings, social anxiety is being so afraid or embarrassed by your social performance that you either avoid social situations or withstand social interactions with significant distress. And… it’s really common.
These three books have fantastic, concrete tips for working with the anxiety that riddles many kids (and some of us parents, too). I wish I’d had some of these this wisdom before that dance… although a few fashion tips would’ve gone pretty far, too.
1) The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive by W. Thomas Boyce M.D.
Thomas, a pediatrician, tells how he and his sister, Mary, had practically identical childhoods, but he went on to achieve academic, professional and marital success whereas Mary devolved into mental health challenges including anorexia and psychosis. This traumatic experience led Thomas to examine what makes some children thrive while others flounder. Some kids, he says, are like dandelions that can thrive in any environment, whereas others are orchids, particularly gifted but much more sensitive to their environments (these children often cause their parents the most worry). Thomas outlines a number of concrete steps parents can take to help the orchids in their lives. This book is beautifully written and compelling, full of concrete tips, but it’s also a love story by a brother about his troubled sister. At the end of it, I just wanted to hug him.
2) The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.
Okay, this book is great for learning about kids and adults alike who may be highly sensitive, a designation that refers to people who tend to have more sensitive nervous systems, are more aware of subtleties in their environments, and get easily overwhelmed in highly-stimulating situations.
Originally published in 1995, this book was updated in 2016 with even more helpful info. The book outlines how being highly sensitive actually makes a person special, and it helps readers reframe past experiences using information about how the highly sensitive mind works. Aron also suggests ways to embrace — and find empowerment in — the qualities that make highly sensitive people highly awesome.
3) Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Lisa Damour Ph.D.
According to Damour’s research, 31% of girls and young women 16-23 experience symptoms of anxiety. That’s a lot of stressed out young women. And that’s not even saying anything about younger girls, who also experience stress/ anxiety in vast numbers. Damour explains how some stress is adaptive and good (humans need it, to some degree) and that with the right coping skills under our belts, we can prevent stress levels from becoming unhealthy and developing into full-blown anxiety. Moreover, she explains that the way we handle stressful situations as parents — say, overreacting versus responding calmly — has a profound effect on how our children learn to handle their own stress. Damour, who is also a mom, covers topics like sleep vs. social media and “snit happens” (how to deal with your pre-teen’s meltdowns). Her sections on helping girls build competence and confidence and halting girls’ beliefs that they are simply “raised to please” others are particularly helpful.