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.
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.