He would plan his whole morning the night before, set multiple alarms and still have trouble falling asleep for fear of running late, even though his parents kindly assured him they would drive him to school if necessary.
One day his grandma called the little boy with an idea: Miss the bus, she told him. Miss it on purpose and just see what happens.
He tried it. Not much happened, of course. His parents drove him to school and he arrived on time and the day was utterly, beautifully unremarkable. Slowly but surely, Kim said, his bus fear is subsiding.
This struck me as a brilliant approach, and I wondered if I should start employing it for my own anxieties — and my children’s.
Its applications are limited, of course. My daughter is afraid of tornadoes. I can’t exactly introduce a tornado into our lives, especially with the intent of proving they’re not really that bad.
But what about those nagging fears that wield way too much power in our lives: fear of rejection, fear of saying what needs to be said, fear of spiders?
“It depends on the anxiety someone is talking about,” Ness told me.
“For irrational fear, that type of behavioral therapy is very effective because you’re challenging yourself,” Ness said. “You have this core belief, ‘If I do A, B is going to happen.’ When you challenge yourself, you’re giving proof to yourself that B won’t happen. One hundred people can tell you nothing bad is going to happen, but until you’ve been in the situation, you don’t have proof.”
People who are afraid to fly, for example, respond well to this approach.
So missing the school bus: Irrational fear, right? Good approach?
“When I was young, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, doing these ritualistic behaviors that don’t make a lot of sense,” Ness said. “I had to go in and out of a room four times. I had to get in and out of bed four times. If I didn’t do these things, I was convinced something bad would happen to my family.”
“But my anxiety came out in different ways,” she said. “I became a perfectionist: I had to be valedictorian; I had to be the fastest runner; I had to be the best softball player.”
The parents of the boy who was afraid to miss the bus would be wise to make sure his core anxiety has been addressed, Ness said.
“Missing the bus is so specific, but where is that anxiety coming from?” she asked.
If it’s larger than just the bus, it will probably come out in different ways.
Suddenly “I hate school” reveals itself to be more nuanced: “School’s not all bad, but I hate being put on the spot, and I don’t always understand the material.”
Once you know the root of the anxiety, you can more effectively help your child work through it. If it doesn’t subside, Ness said, it’s worth discussing with your child’s pediatrician.
I think a similar dialogue is worth running our own fears through. What will happen if I finally launch a long-overdue conversation with my spouse/boss/sister? What am I actually afraid of? Which possible consequence scares me most?
We may find that our fears have become a reflex — a place our mind goes out of habit, more than anything. Which is different, of course, from acute, paralyzing anxiety.
But for the nagging, irrational stuff, I’m going to try to follow that little boy’s lead and miss the metaphorical bus.
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