“You teach best what you need to learn.” – Richard Bach
I was a typical four-year-old kid. I was full of life, energy and always had a smile…but later that year my whole life changed. It wasn’t that my parents divorced or that my grandmother died or even that I was abused. What occurred was that I overheard a conversation about how babies are born and how women get these “huge shots” that “ hurt very bad.” As I listened, my body felt sensations it had never felt before. I now know those feelings as fear and that experience as anxiety.
For the next week, I worried about having a baby. As my mother recalls, I was distant and not myself, but wouldn’t talk about what was bothering me. One week later, at 2:00 in the morning, I finally wanted to talk about it. While it was not an ideal time for my mother, she got up anyway, led me to the kitchen and poured us each a glass of milk.
My mother was no psychologist. She hadn’t even gone to college. She had a high school education, just like my father, and we lived way out in the country where therapists, counselors and psychiatrists were completely unheard of. So my mother did the only thing she could do, and that was listen. She asked questions and through my intermittent sobs she learned of the conversation I’d overheard. Given my debilitating fear of shots, my mother understood how a story like that could make her little girl’s mind spin out of control. We talked until our milk was gone and my mother sent me back to bed.
At some point I fell back asleep but that night opened a can of worms for me that I couldn’t figure out how to close. Suddenly, I became afraid of everything. I started worrying about things like: death, the end of the world, growing old, money, careers, and how I was going to pay for college. Some nights I would wake my mother and other nights I would lie awake alone, trying to figure out how to make my fears go away. I taught myself tricks like counting to 100, staring out my bedroom window at the stars, and forcing my eyes to stay open in an effort to stop worrying. Sometimes my tricks worked, other times they didn’t.
Years later, when I took my first college psychology class I was able to put a name to what I was feeling: anxiety. I learned about the amygdala (the fear center of the brain) and how it can misfire when taking in information. And then I began reading everything I could get my hands on about how to manage it. When I was out of self-help books and finished with college, I applied to the best graduate counseling program I could find.
In grad school, I finally understood why my childhood had been so difficult. During a presentation that I was giving on anxiety, a classmate of mine raised her hand and said, “I felt the same way growing up.” Then another classmate raised her hand and said, “Me, too.” Before long, the whole class declared that anxiety was something they’d struggled with as a child. At the time, I thought it was just random. But now I realize that’s what I should have expected in a room full of smart people.
In 2005, I opened a private practice specializing in counseling children. Day after day, session after session, I heard the same stories. Kids were worried about death, natural disasters, getting into college, pollution, the war in Iraq, and not having enough money. And every kid I saw was smart, did well in school, and was completely debilitated like I was as a child. And so my journey began in helping smart and anxious kids. I listened. I created tools to help kids manage their anxiety. And during my sessions with parents, I taught them about asynchronous development and how children can have successful lives with it. I helped parents understand why their smart kids were worrying in the first place and gave them tools to help.
Why Smart Kids Worry is my passion. Every time I share this information, I heal a little more from my childhood. Those sleepless nights don’t feel so alone. All those years of worrying now have meaning. I am writing this book because I wish I would have had it. I wish my sweet mother, living way out in the country, could have read it and that all anxious children will reap the benefits of it.
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