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Childhood anxiety – there’s an elephant sitting on my chest: how anxiety can manifest in children

Childhood anxiety – there’s an elephant sitting on my chest: how anxiety can manifest in children

Ash PhotoBy Ashley Jay

Toby is 9 years old and he doesn’t know what to do. He’s sitting in the car on the way to school and the ‘horrible feelings’ are starting again. The mice are running around and around in his head again, jumbling up his thoughts, making it hard for him to focus and giving him a headache. The monkey is juggling in his stomach, making it swirl and he’s starting to feel sick. And finally he puts his hand to his chest, it feels tight and sore and it feels difficult to breath. The elephant is sitting on it again.

This happens a lot to Toby. Usually in the mornings before or on his way to school and sometimes at school when he’s having a bad day. Sometimes its just the mice making his head spin. Sometimes its the monkey and the elephant and sometimes it is all three of them. Those are the worst days. When all the animals come together it makes him feel like he’s completely out of control of his mind, body and behaviour. He starts to think up reasons as to why he can’t go to school or if he’s at school why he needs to go home. Today he needs to NOT go to school. He can’t, he absolutely cannot and won’t. In the car he tells his mother he’s not feeling well. She asks where he doesn’t feel well. He tells her about the mice, the monkey and the elephant. She puts her hand on his head and tells him that he does not have a temperature and so he is going to school and he’s got to stop this nonsense. He’s already missed too much school in the last few months and it’s enough.

He starts to panic more, the monkey starts to juggle faster and faster and the elephant gets even more comfortable on his chest. He begs his mom, he pleads with her. She ignores him. He starts to cry. By the time they get to school Toby is sobbing and refusing to get out of the car. His mother tells him that if he doesn’t that she will punish him. He cries more. She then says that if he gets out the car he will get a treat when he gets home later. He doesn’t move. Eventually she just stands there looking at him desperately, no knowing what to do or what to say. It gets worse when some of his friends and their parents walk past him, staring him, asking his mom what the matter is. Eventually the school bell sounds and the parking lot clears. His mom gets into the car and they start driving home. She looks angry and sad at the same time. She tells Toby that she doesn’t know what to do with him anymore, that this behaviour cannot go on. This makes Toby feel even worse because he also doesn’t know what is wrong with him. He hates these feelings and he hates how they make him feel and act.

It wasn’t always like this. Toby used to love school. In Grade 1 and 2 the mice, the monkey and the elephant never lived inside him or made him feel bad. He never cried when he went to school and he never had a problem getting out of the car. He also only left school maybe once or twice in those years if he was really sick. Also his mom never got upset with him like she does now. He’s heard her and his dad talking a lot about him lately. He wishes he could answer their questions. He wishes he knew how to make the animals leave him alone. He wishes he could get out of the car.

Toby’s mom ended up taking Toby to a nice lady who had a really fun and interesting office full of art materials and toys. He would draw for the lady and they would play together, whichever games he wanted. It was like no teacher or extra mural he had ever been to. While they drew and played, Toby and the lady would also talk about his animals and not wanting to go to school. They would talk about where he felt the animals, what each one did and how they made him feel. He didn’t mind talking about the animals with the lady. She seemed to understand exactly what he was saying, as if she had heard about the animals before. He wondered if she also had an elephant who sat on her chest. He felt like he could tell the lady anything and that she would understand and it was also nice because she was very interested in what Toby had to say.

Over the next few weeks, the lady explained what Toby’s animals actually were and why they were making him feel the way he was. She taught him the word ANXIETY and that each of his animals represented a different type of anxiety. She explained that ANXIETY is felt in 3 areas: physically – what we feel in our body; mentally – what goes through our mind like worrisome thoughts and behaviourally – what we do or our actions, such as not wanting to go to school. She explained that the mice were his worried thoughts running around and around in his head, that the monkey and the elephant were how he started to feel in his body and those worried thoughts and sick feelings then started making him feel like he couldn’t go to school.

Toby and the lady worked together on ways to train his animals so that he became in charge of them and not the other way around. He began to realise that the animals may never completely go away but he would be able to control them when they returned. Eventually Toby learned to train his mice, monkey and elephant so that they began to run around, juggle and sit on his chest less and less. His mom and dad now also understood what his animals meant and what to do to help Toby train them.

Eventually Toby did not need to visit the nice lady with the fun toys anymore. This made him sad as he would miss their time together but also happy because he felt much better. Now when he went to school, his mice sat in their corner quietly munching on some cheese and his monkey and elephant were both fast asleep and Toby could get out of the car and not look back.

Note: severe childhood anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways. If you feel that your child’s anxiety is affecting their overall functioning (emotionally, educationally and cognitively) then it is recommended that you consult with an educational psychologist or paediatric psychiatrist. Some cases may require therapy in isolation, other cases with increased severity may require dual modality treatment or medication and therapy.