The easy, breezy days of summer have come and gone and back-to-school mode is now on. Does your child still have back to school jitters or new school nerves? For some children these feelings never subside. For these children life is not such a happy-go-lucky experience and school becomes a constant source of anxiety. They are less carefree and more worrywart when it comes to dealing with social situations in everyday life. The book "Just Like You" helps an anxious child to face their fears and put the power back in their control.
I grew up functioning as an anxious child complete with migraines starting at age seven. I worried about everything and everybody. I recall adults telling me I shouldn't be such a "nervous Nelly" or children saying "don't be so shy." As a teen I developed some skills to deal with stressful situations. I did this by hiding out behind a few social masks that included a goth phase and the whole sk8er girl scene. Eventually I learned to relax about what others thought of me. I started to cope better in social settings and I adopting a different perspective on life. As an adult there's still a couple of things that can make me anxious but basically I live symptom free. Here's the kicker though, I did manage to somehow to pass this trait down to my two sons. They both cope with their anxiety in their own unique ways. It all comes down to adopting good coping strategies and not letting the fear control you.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. —Franklin D. Roosevelt
My friend Laurel "@OptiMom" Crossley-Byers is a life coach who works with children who have anxiety and sleep disorders. She introduced me to Darlene Wierski-Devoe who is an expert in this field. Darlene has written a wonderful book "Just Like You" that I would love to share with you and your child. I had the opportunity to interview Darlene and we both hope her suggestions can help your child, family member, or student coping with anxiety or a mood disorder.
1. What story do you tell in your book JUST LIKE YOU?
Just Like You is about a girl who struggles with anxiety. Throughout the book she explains to readers how her anxiety manifests itself through her thoughts and actions. She helps those around her understand that anxiety is like a little bug that is always telling her she can’t do things and that she isn’t good enough. The reader begins to understand just how hard it is for her to cope with her anxiety when life should be fun and carefree. The reader also learns about how the main character is beginning to stand up to her “anxiety monster” and is putting herself in charge. ”Just Like You” reminds everyone not to give up on her and that with the right support and understanding she will thrive.
2. What inspired you to write about anxiety from the point of view of a young girl in a school setting?
My inspiration for this story came both from my lifelong personal struggle with anxiety as well as that of my children. When other kids would approach me in the school yard and ask me why my daughter was crying, sad or afraid it became apparent to me that there needed to be some way to help them understand that the behaviours they were seeing were not due to belligerence arrogance or rudeness, they came from fear.
Anxiety in a school setting is very common, however when it becomes debilitating it is hard for all involved to figure out how to help. Through awareness we gain knowledge. With knowledge we gain perspective and with that perspective we can help. “Just Like You” shows very real situations with very real feelings which give parents, peers and educators a view into what can be a very terrifying life for a child. Dealing with anxiety each and every day makes you feel sometimes like life is passing you by. I wanted all children who struggle with anxiety to know that it CAN be overcome and they CAN be happy.
3. How did you decide on the title JUST LIKE YOU and the illustrations that highlight the story?
The book was originally called, “Just Like Me” however when I wrote the last page “…I want to be the best person I can be every day, just like you” the light bulb went off and it was clear that it should be “Just Like You”. Even though these kids struggle with emotions and fear they are no different than you or I. For them a particular feeling or emotion has been triggered their fight or flight response has kicked in leaving them unable to function or think past the fear.
I distinctly remember going through the artistic process with my illustrator and explaining to her that the illustrations need to be “not so perfect, not so linear. After all anxiety is chaotic and all over the place.” I was going for images that were a little raw and that left a little to the imagination of the reader. The “anxiety monster” needed to look menacing but not in a gruesome way—more in a playful way that is pesky and irritating. Each child will read this book and have their own interpretation of their own anxiety monster and that’s what it’s all about – finding similarities while finding solace in your own uniqueness.
4. A diagnosis of social anxiety disorder might be difficult for some parents to contemplate due in part to ignorance and/or stigma. What suggestions do you have for parents who recognize anxiety in their child? What steps could they take if they see their child is suffering in social settings or experiencing physical symptoms?
It is always hard to come to the conclusion that there is something that our children are struggling with. No parent wants to see their children have difficulty. The reality is – especially with anxiety – without recognition, understanding and a patient environment the child will not thrive.
If you recognize that your child is struggling with anxious thoughts, worry or fears don’t ignore it. The brain gets a very bad wrap. We treat all other parts of the body with high regard. If a child cannot participate in gym class due to a broken leg it is acceptable to take it easy or sit out. Well, what if it’s your brain that’s the problem? Does it not deserve the same treatment? We don’t nurture a child with the same kindness and empathy as when they say that “something doesn’t feel right and they can’t do something.” Why? It’s because we can’t see their fear. We need to take a moment and really observe and listen to what our children are trying to tell us.
I created a journal that accompanies the book. It’s called the “Me” toolbox journal. It is a place where the kids can work through different ideas that are touched upon within the book. It prompts them to find out what their own “anxiety monster” looks like and how it affects what they think and believe. At the end of each page is an affirmation that helps them to remember just how amazing they are. The journal gives children the opportunity to create a toolbox that helps them identify options for when they are feeling scared or worried.
When you see a child struggling and/or experiencing physical symptoms such as crying, shivering/shaking, rapid breathing or sweating a few simple words can go a very long way. Don’t feel like you need a lot of words—at that moment they there are far too many other thoughts in their head. “You are fine” is a simple but effective way to reassurance your child that they are in fact okay.
Realize though that when they are in that moment of terrifying feelings you need to help them through it. Sometimes that may look like nothing more than sitting beside them and letting them know they are not alone with their feelings.
Just remember, talking to them when they are not in the midst of panic and anxiety can open the door to some great discussions around what they need when they are in those moments.
Over the years we have filled our toolbox of ideas so that there is always a solution. That’s an important element to battling anxiety—there are always solutions.
5. Some anxious behaviors can often be mistaken and/or downplayed as "shyness". What do you recommend for friends, family and others who want to help the anxious child in their life?
If you see your child struggling and unable to do regular every day activities do not wait to seek help. Research has proven—and our family is living proof—that early intervention is the key is helping these kids soar.
I am not sure where we’d be without our “village of support.” I call it a “village of support” because we need to seek out all of the people (family, friends, agencies, doctors etc.) who will support, encourage and challenge our children in a safe environment. The best step in moving towards a life free of anxious thoughts and worry is establishing the understanding that and every day is extremely difficult for these children. Working through anxious moments takes time. It takes time for the brain to understand that the situation is in fact not dire and that there is hope in riding that wave of anxiety. It takes time to understand that the feelings don’t last (although sometimes it feels like it).
Start asking questions and speaking to people that your trust: a children’s support centre such as ROCK (Reach out Centre for Kids) or George Hull or your family doctor. As parents, if we are in tune with our children we’ll instinctively know when they are struggling. Unless you ask you never know what help is available to help—not only for your child but the whole family.
Shyness is one thing; however the inability to cope with life is a whole other story. Remember anxiety is not something to be ashamed of.
6. What age group does JUST LIKE YOU target and who else do you think can benefit from the lessons in the story?
The primary audience for “Just Like You” is for ages 4-10. The “Me” companion journal can extend to around 12 years old. To be honest though, I’ve gotten feedback from all ages and it seems like the book has been striking a cord with many, many people.
For the anxious child it allows them to realize that they are not alone; that others feel those terrifying feelings just like they do. The book offers a sense of comfort and introduces the concept that they are not the anxiety; the anxiety is separate from them.
For children who don’t experience those kinds of anxious feelings it offers insight into their peers behaviours. It allows children to see that the girl/boy in their class who doesn’t talk isn’t trying to be rude – he/she is just terrified.
For parents of anxious children who have never experienced these kinds of feelings it allows them to see just how difficult it is for their child to function every day. I have had numerous parents tell me that “they never knew how hard it was.”
For parents of anxious children who have experienced those kinds of frightening, worrisome feelings themselves, it allows them to share in some of the ideas and concepts in order to perhaps lighten their own anxiety.
Quite often children that struggle with this magnitude of anxiety have issues with bullying. As I mentioned before in the “Me” journal at the bottom of each page there is an affirmation that focuses on ones strengths and further empowers both child and adult alike to realize that we are unique, strong, vibrant and amazing.
The book and journal are a journey, and one that I hope many children will take because everyone should feel like they belong in their own skin and feel that they are supported in every way regardless of ability.
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