‘Social anxiety’ fear nearly terrifies one young girl until help arrives

Opinion from Margie Boule, published by the Oregonian, August 11 2008

Therapist and mom’s novel aimed at kids

Jenna Knudsen used to beg her mother, Marjie Knudsen, to pull her out of public school and home-school her.

Jenna hated going to school. Oh, she had friends. She participated in activities: For four years at Southridge High School, Jenna was a cheerleader. She also was in the musical.

On the outside, Jenna looked happy and successful.

On the inside, Jenna was “hurting so much,” Marjie says, “she would get stomachaches. She was tormented, and going to school was the worst.”

This is not a story about a bully making Jenna’s life miserable. “She wasn’t a target,” Marjie says. The only person beating up Jenna was Jenna herself.

For a long time, Marjie just thought Jenna was shy. “She was very clingy,” Marjie says. She thought Jenna would outgrow it. By fifth grade, Marjie realized Jenna needed help to overcome her anxieties.

“Our pediatrician suggested she see a psychologist. Boy, that was the best decision I could have made.”

Jenna and Marjie learned Jenna had something called “social anxiety.” Between 3 and 13 percent of all people have it, according to Jenne Henderson, a local clinical psychologist who treats children with anxiety.

“Social anxiety is more severe than shyness,” Jenne says. “It impacts a person’s life more dramatically, or causes them more distress.”

Parents often experience denial when their children have social anxiety. They don’t realize that techniques and therapies are available that may help the anxious child learn to feel comfortable in the outside world.

Instead, they get in the habit of protecting the child. They let the child stay home when the child pretends to be sick, or says he doesn’t want to go to a birthday party or sleepover. The parent will order the child’s meal in a restaurant, or allow a child to avoid summer camp.

Often the child doesn’t understand why he or she feels so much fear. Jenna didn’t.

“Life was just hard,” she says. “Doing things that were normal for everyone else was so hard for me, and I didn’t know why. I’d think, ‘Why do I get so nervous and other people don’t?’ ”

After she dragged herself to school, Jenna says, “it was fine. But even if it went well, next morning I’d be nervous again.”

Marjie and Jenna learned techniques from Jenne, and slowly Jenna expanded her comfort zone. Marjie chaperoned school events, so she was nearby if Jenna got anxious. Later, as Jenna became more comfortable, she would carry a cell phone and call her mother if she got scared.

Jenna learned, she says, “if you keep putting yourself into situations, it will only make you stronger, even if you are really nervous. It’s better to expose yourself to anxious situations than to avoid them.”

When Jenna turned 17, she says, all the techniques she’d learned fell into place. Today she feels much more comfortable in social situations. In fact, she’s looking forward to going away to college next month.

Marjie could have relaxed, knowing Jenna was better. “But I kept running into parents with kids who had the same problem,” she says. Worse, the parents had tried to help their children and had given up.

Marjie knew the secret was preparing anxious children, ahead of time, for social situations. She’d learned that from her friend Jenne, who sometimes pretends to be a barista, so anxious children she works with can practice ordering treats at Starbucks.

After research, Marjie discovered there were almost no fiction books about social anxiety for grade school kids.

“I had tried to read nonfiction books to Jenna, about social anxiety,” and they weren’t compelling. “I thought if there was a memorable story, if it was entertaining, kids might actually read it.”

So, Marjie got together with Jenne, and the two wrote a novel for kids called “BRAVE: Be Ready and Victory’s Easy, A Story About Social Anxiety” (Summertime Press, $11.95, 96 pages). The acronym BRAVE is one Marjie came up with, based on the techniques that had helped Jenna. “I thought kids would remember an acronym,” Marjie says. “And kids with social anxiety need to be brave.”

The book is about a boy named Danny, who’s anxious all the time. In the book, he deals with bullies and public speaking assignments, visiting other kids’ houses and daily stomachaches. By being brave, by preparing in advance, Danny’s life gets easier.

The book was released Aug. 1 and is available at Amazon.com. Its authors hope kids, parents, pediatricians and teachers will read the book, better understand what it feels like to have social anxiety and learn new ways to overcome fear.

Jenna knows the techniques in the book work. Today she’s “so glad” her mother refused to home-school her. “If I hadn’t gone to school and forced myself to go through those situations, I wouldn’t be the same today,” she says. “This book will help a lot of kids.”

EXTRA – BRAVE: Be Ready and Victory’s Easy, A Story About Social Anxiety, @ Powells.com