I don’t just cry when I watch Justin Bieber movies. I mean, I cry when I watch Justin Bieber movies, but I cry lots of other times too. I cry at Disneyland, and when I see little kids dancing to fun music, when I go to ANY concert, and when my kids graduate from kindergarten or go to kindergarten or pretty much when anyone talks about kindergarten in relation to my kids. But those are mostly happy tears. The tears I shed on the soccer field this summer were not.
Magoo has always been outgoing. He’s the life of the party. When Magoo walked into preschool, his friends knew that the fun had arrived. He loves other kids and playing in groups and meeting new people. Except lately he’s terrified of playing in groups or meeting new people.
It started maybe six months ago. He will get really excited about a birthday party or a class activity but right as we get there, he freaks out. I remember the first time he displayed this kind of social anxiety and how much it scared me as he cowered behind my legs crying and begging me not to make him participate with people he didn’t know.
It’s sad because it’s always when we’re in a group setting, when we’re about to do something he’s been excited to do, something fun. And he’s not seeking attention and he’s not throwing a fit. He’s just terrified. And there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to calm him down. So, he misses out.
After the first couple of times when he panicked upon arriving somewhere, he started to plan ahead and ask me not to sign him up for things. No summer camps. No afterschool programs. No birthday parties where he doesn’t know everyone. He begged me not to sign him up for soccer in case there were kids on his team he didn’t know. I signed him up anyway.
So we went to the first practice and he did okay. When we came back for the second practice, I watched the anxiety spread over his face and he started to shake and cling to me, begging me not to make him play. One of the kids he knew really well was absent and there was a new kid there, a terrifying kid, if sweet, happy and good at soccer equals terrifying.
“I don’t know anyone,” he sobbed through chattering teeth, “PLEASE don’t make me play! PLEASE!”
I tried kindly entreating him to play. I tried talking him through his thought processes, the way my therapist taught me to do when I have a panic attack. I tried forcing him, peeling him off me and gently pushing him toward the field. I even tried bribing him to play. “If you go out and play with your team, I’ll let you choose any desert you can think of tonight.”
We’re not a desert family and he has a major sweet tooth so this intrigued him. He wiped away the tears, let out a few ragged breaths, looked over at the kids and then shook his head, sobbing, sadness mixed with the fear. “I can’t. I just can’t.”
It was at this point that I started crying. It wasn’t because he wouldn’t play or because he was causing a scene. It had more to do with my fear that he’d never play, that he’d spiral to a place of social anxiety where he’d never leave the house again. In that moment of catastrophizing, he wasn’t just a scared kid. In my mind, he was a socially paralyzed middle-aged man with ten cats, no education, and a Hoarders-worthy apartment. He was afraid forever.
Now, with the help of a patient and persistent coach, I managed to get him back in the game. First I made him sit on the sidelines next to me, but not touching me, and cheer for his team, calling each person by name over and over again. Then I stood with him on the field and asked him to listen to his coach’s instructions from the back of the group. We slowly eased him in over a couple of practices and he’s having a great time now.
Until next time. Until we start piano lessons next month or until he meets his new class at school. It makes me sad to see him so scared but I’m at a bit of a loss. I’ll be researching and trying to figure it out but if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.