Blinded-sided by Anxiety in 6th Grade
The school’s phone number popped up on my caller ID on that Tuesday, the third week of school. What I didn’t suspect was that it would be the school counselor telling me my daughter had just had an anxiety attack.
She explained that Kelsey, my sixth-grader, had come from her History class with tears streaming down her bright red cheeks and struggling to breathe. The counselor had been able to, over a15-minute period, calm my daughter and teach her some strategies to use next time. She believed Kelsey had experienced an anxiety attack.
The counselor assured me that anxiety is common in adolescent girls, especially in the first year of middle school. And that she would be available to help whenever Kelsey needed support or a safe place. After the nurse checked her vitals, my daughter was okayed to go to class.
“What in the world!” I said to the counselor. Kelsey had always been reserved, preferring to ease into new things, but we’d never seen anything resembling an anxiety attack. We’d never observed her to be apprehensive or worried about anything. She had a solid friend group, did well in school, was in scouts and played soccer.
It was becoming clearer to me. Kelsey had had an orthodontist appointment and missed a History class the week before. I had urged her a number of times to ask the teacher for the makeup work. On this Tuesday morning I had insisted that she do it… even telling her that she would lose phone privileges if she didn’t come home with the work.
What we didn’t realize, and what Kelsey hadn’t told my husband and me, was that she couldn’t talk to her teachers. That night, through tears, Kelsey explained that she’d felt frozen. As if she were glued to her desk. She couldn’t approach her teacher. She tried to gather the strength, but she couldn’t move or speak. She’d never felt that scared. Worse, her pounding heart made breathing nearly impossible. She even went as far as to say that she felt claustrophobic during the attack and thought she
might be dying because of the pressure. What made it more embarrassing was that she saw every student in class staring at her as she fell apart.
I was thinking, “Couldn’t talk to your teacher?” “What do you mean couldn’t?” I even said to her… “You’re in middle school now. I shouldn’t be calling and emailing teachers on your behalf. You should be handling those things on your own.”
“Dying?” I clearly didn’t understand, and my daughter knew it.
Our inability to comprehend or help our daughter’s pain, feelings, and panic motivated us to quickly connect to resources — not just for our daughter, but also for my husband and me. It was clear that we all had things to learn.
From the counselor my husband and I saw, we came to accept and understand that Kelsey’s fears and anxieties were real, no matter how unreasonable they sounded to us. We also learned that just because she’d lived her entire life up to 6th grade having never had anxiety issues meant nothing — anxiety can start at any time in a person’s life and come and go without warning.
I can’t be certain, but it sure looked like for Kelsey the combination of the new environment of Middle School and puberty’s hormone infusion combined for a perfect storm of anxiety inside her.
As we listened to Kelsey we learned how some feelings and situations overwhelmed her. Anything that embarrassed her and receiving undue attention triggered her panic attacks. Her peers would be unphased at being called out by the PE coach for talking, a boy telling everyone he “liked” her, or absent team members leaving her to complete a science lab alone. But Kelsey processed these events very differently. We learned how to help her and listen without judgement. We understood none of this was her fault. And we helped her understand this, too.
In addition to weekly check-ins with the school counselor and her open door policy, we took her to a professional counselor. They met weekly for over a year. Upon recommendation of that counselor, we also took Kelsey to a psychiatrist who prescribed a medication to ease anxiety. With all this support, Kelsey still had an average of two anxiety attacks at week at school. Even though we never saw one as they never happened at home, we knew how hard they were on her.
From the counseling both at school and privately Kelsey was equipped with tools, such as identification of symptoms, deep breathing, quickly finding a quiet place, calming herself with her own thoughts (I’m not dying. I’ve survived it before. I’m in a safe place. I’ll be okay.) With time and self-assurance, she learned how to de-escalate the attack on her own. Eventually, the focus turned to using those tools to prevent the attack from gaining steam altogether.
In early May of sixth-grade, we saw a light at the end of the tunnel. The attacks were less frequent. Kelsey gained more control. If she felt an attack coming on, she immediately shifted into coping mode. Her success implementing them built her confidence and reduced her fears.
After the first six weeks of seventh grade Kelsey, poised and sure, told us that she didn’t feel like she needed to see an outside counselor any longer, and she was right. Kelsey had only two near-anxiety attacks in all of seventh grade. Not only was she managing her anxiety, but she transformed in other ways as well. She stepped into herself singing in the choir and trying out and making the volleyball team.
That fall of eighth grade brought more and welcomed changes. At Open House Kelsey eagerly introduced us to her teachers… she even hugged two of them. She volunteered to be a student mentor and, to our surprise and delight, signed up for a speech class. Even better, she won awards for her public speaking abilities.
Recently, a mom who hadn’t known Kelsey until our girls were eighth graders was shocked when I told her about Kelsey’s previous struggles with anxiety. I remember her saying, “Kelsey? Your Kelsey?” We laughed about the fact that Kelsey and her friend were leaders in choir and sometimes too outspoken for their own good!
Where are we now? Kelsey started high school, a new environment and way of life for all of us. She told me she was excited about it and relieved it won’t be like 6th grade! Her confidence and courage shine. Should the A-word make an appearance, we all have the tools and skills to navigate it — and know where and how to seek help when we don’t.
My thanks and appreciation to April in Frisco, a long time reader, for sharing and writing Kelsey’s story for The Tween Times.