Dear Evan Hansen - Anxiety on Broadway

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Dear Evan Hansen is the Tony Award winning best musical of 2017 whose main character, Evan Hansen (portrayed by the insanely talented Benjamin Platt) is clearly a longtime sufferer of an anxiety disorder. Evan is the very prototype for the stereotypical image of anxiety - alone, in his room, nervous ticks, unnerved when trying to speak to other people, constantly apologizing for himself, friendless. His identifying song is “Waving Through A Window” conveying that he feels alone, unseen, on the outside of life. He conveys the anxiety driven tendency to pump the brakes before you ever get going for fear of all the bad outcomes that could happen when you garner speed. It's a familiar characterization and one feels both sympathy and discomfort watching him try to cope with high school as an unusually anxious teenager.

 

Everyone feels anxiety. It's one of the more common emotions we experience and tweens/teenagers, with all the changes they experience, certainly experience more frequent and stronger anxiety naturally than mature adults. Anxiety triggers a fear response - fight or flight. Evan classically retreats to flight.

 

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But there is another boy in Dear Evan Hansen. This character doesn't engender much sympathy. He’s a creep, a jerk, a stoner who never said or did anything nice. His sister, Zoe, painfully speaks about him pounding on the door saying he's going to kill her. Clearly, this boy is disturbed. The boy’s suicide is the central plot motivation and in remembering this disturbed loner, peers remember that he threw a printer at his second grade teacher and his mother remembers that he wasn't invited to a single Bar Mitzvah. To be remembered as a High School Senior for something you did in second grade…

 

But what if Connor wasn't a creep. What if Connor was dealing with a significant anxiety order in second grade that never was treated or managed? The mothers of both Evan and Connor open the show with “Anybody Have a Map?” capturing the angst, worry and exasperation of any parent whose child is difficult, different, suffering when we have no idea how to help this person we love so much…and they are too young to help themselves. What if Connor was a bright, energetic boy frustrated by the pace or content of his classes with an anxiety disorder that manifested in anger and outbursts? Imagine what the punishments and peers/adult reactions would feel like in the midst of a massive anxiety episode you don't understand and cannot articulate.

Untreated anxiety disorders can escalate to depression and suicide. Untreated anxiety disorder sufferers (and surely some who have had therapy) are at high risk for drug and alcohol abuse as well as sexual risk taking. Parents and teachers dealing with a tough child don't even know what anxiety can look like. We all think it's only “Evan”.

Another profile of Anxiety Disorders in children (perhaps adults too) is defiant, disruptive and angry. Unignorable. The child, in the midst of an anxiety episode feels like he is fighting for his very life. I've stopped counting the number of moms I know who have shared their exasperation with their (usually) grade/middle school son for his anger, defiance and disruptive behavior. I share our experience with childhood anxiety with its Connor face as opposed to the more conventional Evan and urge them to seek psychological intervention and ask if it could be anxiety.  The child knows they feel angry, out of control and scared…but they don't know it's anxiety. A psychologist counseled me to share the issue of an anxiety disorder with teachers and coaches because the Connor experience triggers anger, punishment and frustration from the very adults who could help…but when they know it's anxiety, they are sympathetic and much less punitive.

Anxiety can be managed and treated. The anxious child has to be bought in to working on it (and I have no idea if the Connor character would have been as a second grader). For some, cognitive behavioral therapy, positive parenting and a new (new school) and amazing educational team over time help the child understand his emotions and learn tools to address his anxiety episodes. For some, the removal of screens (a proven anti-anxietal but with withdrawal like symptoms when denied), household dynamic changes and talk therapy is the answer. For some, anti-anxiety medication may provide what is needed. For all the children and parents, understanding that the unacceptable behavior is an anxiety disorder is the first step to managing it and maybe, growing out of it. Your child needs to know you see him or her (As in Dear Evan Hansen…”You Will Be Found”). Your child needs compassion and help articulating what is so uncomfortable (boredom, noise, embarrassment from a learning difference, fear of failure, rejection…etc.) that they have to lash out. The treatment process can help you develop an incredible bond of understanding with your child.

Dear Evan Hansen would have lost its storyline if Connor was sympathetic and effectively treated for anxiety as a second grader, but for all the parents of a Connor who do not know what to do, read up on Childhood Generalized Anxiety Disorder and talk to a professional ASAP. Your child’s life might depend on it.

Top Ten Lessons from Visiting Day

We send our three children across the country to sleepaway camp - because we found a camp that fits all three kids and has everything one could dream of except waterskiing.  They relax, disconnect, make new friends, try new things and make lots of independent choices.  It's a terrific growth experience that they adore.  They beg to go for longer and longer.

And we never saw the camp (NJY Camps) before sending the two boys three summers ago.  We trusted that it was 90 years old, well regarded and had the sorts of things our kids like to do.  We got very lucky.  And this year, because they successfully convinced us to send them for long enough, they are there for visiting day.  And so my husband and I crossed the country and drove from New York City to the beautiful Delaware River Gap to savor five-six hours with our kids.  I learned some excellent lessons during this really great day (seriously - it was amazing and I want to go to camp).

  1. Visiting day starts at 10am.  Except that we park next to the bunks for overflow and once the cars arrived…visiting day starts. At 9:15 we hit overflow.  Not going to miss a minute.
  2. “No pets” doesn’t apply to people’s dogs.  Dogs are family. Too hot to leave them in the car (clearly). Just disregard the camp’s request. Hope they brought pick-up bags.
  3. BBQ included. Except my kids really, really want cheeseburgers (kosher camp) so can we please, please leave and go to lunch.  Us and 1000 other visiting parents. Traffic. OK.
  4. When dedicating five hours to the effort, bunks can be presented as clean and not smelly.  Amazing. 
  5. Apparently, there is a nefarious stamp thief on the loose in all the bunks.
  6. Socks really do disappear in the camp laundry.
  7. Even Moms can climb the lake iceberg and slide off the top.  It’s not graceful, but it is possible.
  8. Jumping into water wearing a Mae West lifejacket (required) hurts when it bangs into the back of your head.
  9. The trust jump from a 4in x 4in ledge 50 feet up to hit a red ball in space is terrifying to parents and no big deal to all three kids.  And yes, I climbed up and did it because one of the three asked me to do it. 
  10. As I battled the stop and go traffic on country roads that only have traffic this 1 day per year, I longed wistfully for summers at camp and for a longer day with my three with a few more hugs.

We met up with the boys first at Cedar Lake and then got a golf cart ride down the big hill to Nah-Jee-Wah. Reunion was sweet!

The camp did a great job of ensuring the kids weren't sad when we left.  As I walked out of the camp to meet my husband after dropping my daughter at her bunk, I saw hundreds of kids on the lawn having a massive watergun fight.  Lots of laughter and already distant, but happy memories of Mom and Dad. 

Suspensions are stupid and that's not all that's wrong with them

Suspensions are stupid – not to mention discriminatory and ineffective.

Suspensions are for adults, not for kids. There are times when kids make serious mistakes and judgment errors.  Statistically, boys, especially boys of color and boys with learning differences, appear to make more of the mistakes that bother adults most – getting disciplined, detention or suspensions. To what effect?  I don’t believe that boys are making more mistakes than girls – but their mistakes are more obvious and bothersome to adults – pushing, fighting, cursing – than girls who shun, manipulate and ostracize.

People learn from facing the consequences for their actions.  Or do they?  The entire premise of the US criminal justice system is that the probability and magnitude of punishment will deter crime.  And yet, our country has the highest percentage of incarcerated adults in western society and doesn’t have the corresponding low crime rate.  Furthermore, recidivism is very high among incarcerated US adults so it seems they did not learn from the consequence of prison.

Suspensions and detention are the academic version of incarceration. The child is separated, for a period of time, to atone for their errors. And studies are proving that just like prison, it doesn’t improve behavior either.  In fact, it worsens it by grouping together kids who are struggling with impulsivity, anger or something else. 

Even more frustrating is students in Special Education (all 13 categories) have twice as much probability of receiving a suspension than students without IDEA qualified disabilities (US Department of Education) – this does not include students covered by Section 504. In fact, one of every two students with a Learning Disability (and including AD/HD or other behavioral diagnoses) faced a school disciplinary action in 2011 (National Center for Learning Disabilities)

Suspensions can exacerbate anxiety and learning by keeping the child from education – and if the child is struggling in school, exacerbating feelings of shame often manifesting as troublesome behavior.

Summing up a variety of studies, the American Academy of Pediatrics maintains, “out-of-school suspension...[is] counterproductive to the intended goals, rarely if ever [is] necessary, and should not be considered as appropriate discipline in any but the most extreme and dangerous  circumstances…

The evidence against suspensions is mounting, resulting in school districts changing policies.  For example, the School Board city of Oakland, CA just banned suspensions for “willful defiance”  in exchange for more focus on why students are behaving a certain way. 

San Francisco and Marin County have done so as well.  And my local suburban schools have dramatically reduced suspension but have not yet eliminated it as a practice.

San Francisco public schools began widespread use of restorative practices four years ago and has watched suspensions shrink by 49 percent.”  - Seattle Times, 1/24/15

Suspension is for the adults – particularly for the lynch mob.  It’s to be able to say – to parents or our colleagues and community – “we took action.”  We followed the behavior policy and that child has been “held accountable.” It is a demonstration of raw power – we have the power to remove you – not of justice. Administrators admit that suspensions and detentions rarely do anything productive. Suspensions don’t address the environment or social circumstances that led to the issue. Administrators need to determine if they believe that recess skirmishes where no one is seriously harmed represent anything other than children dealing with conflict – not significant threats to school safety.

As parents, we need to support our administrators in using children’s mistakes as opportunities to learn.  The best example is “restorative discipline” where the students involved are individually or collectively coached to reflect on the incident, talk through how their actions impacted other people without threat of recrimination, identify what happened for them and talk about how to deal with that situation in the future, determine how to make amends and then make them.  This approach does not appease the lynch mob.  No one is drawn and quartered. No one is publicly humiliated. Instead, students learn how their choices impact their community.  And they learn to privately approach people they’ve upset and genuinely apologize – often the hardest and most impactful action. 


Interestingly, in many cities in the US, the same concept is the approach for first time offenders and non-violent offenders.  And their recidivism is dramatically lower than ours while crime rates fall. Isn’t it time that we replace a failed, counter productive model with something that ultimately creates a safer and more peaceful society?

The iPhone/iPad/Kindle Truce of 2014

We cannot beat the devices – they have infiltrated our lives irreversibly.  True – if one moves to a remote island, becomes Amish or sails around the world disconnected from civilization – one can avoid the digital devices. We cannot. Of course, if one cannot afford a digital device, one is facing more important challenges than this one.  That said, since we don't want to eliminate all electronics from our lives, we have to find a way to live in harmony with the devices designed for distraction. I am thrilled that all summer, while at camp, my children experience life device free. But we don't have the stomach to live device free year round.

The effort to exert parental restriction on the digital devices was teaching our children how to become adept at evading detection and dishonesty.  So what is worse -  unmonitored use of digital devices where the device is quickly absorbing much of their unstructured time or the same thing, but having to discern if my child is lying, hiding or otherwise evading interference?

Our initial thoughts on battle strategies:

  • Keep Parentkit on the devices (even though it blocks Spotify, Instagram and Safari) as a requirement for keeping the device
  • Eliminate all games from the devices and ensure they have no way to put them back on by taking away their iTunes account where they use their iTunes gift cards.
  • Switch from iPhone to Android where there are applications for parents to control the device remotely.
  • Take away the devices

Every parent of an (upper) middle class middle-schooler seems to be embroiled in the same struggle.  As far as struggles go, there are some much worse – our children are healthy and safe.  So it’s a first world “problem”. That said, it’s our first world problem. We know that the devices keep our children from socializing face to face and creatively filling their free time.  Or being bored. Or running around. They have unprecedented access to all types of entertainment – at their fingertips (more on that another time). And the answers aren’t simple – suburban tweens and teens communicate and make plans overwhelmingly through these devices.

Our goal is that our children are capable, as young adults, to make responsible choices about how they use technology.  We had a family meeting to talk about what technology is doing to our family.  We invited our children to make a contract with us as the providers of the phone and wireless service and to articulate what they thought was reasonable use and what the consequences would be if they violated the agreement.  We wrote it out and it’s posted in our house.  Here is what we agreed upon:

  1. No devices in bedrooms.  Ever.
  2. No devices in the car until the trip is longer than one hour.  There is no need to text in the car while going from place to place.  If a text comes in, it can be addressed when you arrive at your destination.
  3. Everyone’s devices are placed in the charging stations by the front door when they arrive.  This applies to Mom and Dad too.  The au pair may take his upstairs.  Use the new, super cool charging stations.
  4. Devices can be used for listening to music while doing homework.  Devices can be used for listening to music on the bus.
  5. On the weekends or no-school days, individual devices can be used for 30 minutes per day for entertainment in a public space in the house.  The child will set their timer after stating that they are going to use their 30 minutes.  After that time, they can play together on the Xbox, play board games, cards, go outside, etc.
  6. On a weekend or no-school day when a child is alone in the house, they may have another 30-minute window.

And the consequences:

  • First violation, lose device for one day
  • Second violation, lose device for three days
  • Third violation, lose device for full week

What do you think?  How long do you think the treaty will keep the peace?