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The Bravest Kid I Know

A mom’s celebration of her introverted, anxious child

Rebecca Hughes

Published on: January 14, 2019

Introverted child hides behind his mother's legs

I don’t often write about my kids in a serious or deep way. I usually stick to the humorous. There are two reasons for that: 1) People don’t typically browse social media looking for profound thoughts on random children. I fully understand that my kids are way more interesting to me than they will ever be to anyone else; 2) I want to leave them room to grow and breathe. Everything we put in print is indelible. I don’t ever want them to feel stifled by my observations, or feel like they have been pigeonholed by me, and subsequently by my acquaintances or strangers. 

However, today I just have to. My son Spencer deserves a public celebration, although he would hate for it to happen.

If you were to ever meet Spencer, you would probably be completely underwhelmed at first. Perhaps you might even feel judgmental. His downcast eyes, shrinking posture and barely audible voice — none of it is welcoming, nor does it fit the ideal image of how a child should act when you meet him.

When I watch kids on TV, I often feel a tinge of jealousy. Here are these kids on stage, singing songs or giving adorably precocious answers to an interviewer’s questions. There are the kids on sitcoms who say their lines as if they were implanted in their heads during sleep, and they can hardly wait to spit them out. Their obvious enthusiasm for being in the public eye is wonderfully mind-blowing.

Then there are the updates about my friends’ kids on social media. These kids are always saying clever things, accepting awards, performing at recitals, competing at gymnastics or swim meets. There they are, beaming, so proud of their accomplishments. Each time I am truly impressed, and I am sincerely happy for my friends, who must find parenting these lovely, outgoing, highly capable children an absolute delight.

But back to Spencer — let me tell you a bit about him. Spencer has allergies. He also has asthma and eczema. He is also in the fifth percentile for weight and the sixth percentile for height. By the time he turned 3, he had already been hospitalized four times. His allergies are all life-threatening, which means we carry EpiPens and Benadryl everywhere we go.

One dark November night, he went into anaphylaxis in the car while my husband was driving on I-5. My husband had to pull over and give him an EpiPen injection right there on the side of the freeway. The paramedics had to come and rush him to the hospital.

Spencer never even cried. He knew what had to be done, so he was brave.

Here’s another thing about Spencer. He has been diagnosed with general anxiety. The therapist believes it has to do with his medical history; apparently, many children with allergies display higher than normal levels of anxiety. This comes from the early understanding that they must be vigilant at all times. They also witness their parents’ anxiety, try as we might to hide it. Finally, every medical event introduces a new cast of strangers in hospitals who perform painful procedures.

Raising an introvert can be excruciating at times. Raising an introvert with anxiety feels like its own special form of torture.

Can you imagine how it would feel to be constantly worrying that you might end up in an ambulance with strangers if you eat the wrong thing? Now imagine that you’re 4 years old. Because of this, Spencer fears new adults. He also fears transitions into new places if he has not had time to get mentally prepared. This anxiety has created a level of introversion I never could have anticipated.

Raising an introvert can be excruciating at times. Raising an introvert with anxiety feels like its own special form of torture.

I knew from a very early age that Spencer was an introvert. His extremely cautious nature made him a late crawler and walker. This was always fine with me, as it meant minimal baby-proofing. When he was just able to crawl, he would crawl to his room if the house felt too chaotic. I would find him there, quietly looking at books. Once he had recharged, he would crawl back to me, perfectly happy and willing to participate again.

I also knew that Spencer would be unlikely to try anything risky until he was fairly certain he could master it. He is a perfectionist. He will watch others and return to the scene over and over again until he has a sense of the best approach. This is great, since when he learns something, he rarely fails at it. For example, when he became potty-trained, he decided to sleep in underwear at night, too. He only wet the bed once in three years. When he learned to read, he wouldn’t read out loud until he knew how to read every word in the book. He would start over if he missed even one word. When he learned to speak, it was in full sentences. They were not just simple observations, either. He expressed every single thing he was thinking, and every emotion he felt.

Here is the thing about introversion. It does not mean that you do not like people. It means you need quiet time to process your observations and feelings. And having anxiety does not mean you are scared of everything. It means you need time to prepare yourself and find coping mechanisms that work for you. In both cases, you have to have an incredibly strong sense of self, and you gain an incredibly nuanced sense of the world around you.

That is why when we meet new people, I want to cringe. Spencer is tiny and so, so cute. If you happen to catch a glimpse of his face, you will see two huge brown eyes quickly studying everything about you before they turn downward again.

Unfortunately, it is often at this point that most people write him off with these words: “Oh, you’re shy?” I hate this. I understand that it is a natural reaction. However, that comment reduces a child like this to a surface attribute that doesn’t really exist. No, he is not “shy.” Shy is a word that we do not even allow Spencer to use. We say he is cautious. We say he is an observer. We say that he needs to take his time to get to know people. When he is reduced to one word, he is written off. It tells him (and me), “I give up. Your child is not worth my time or energy.”

But here is the warning: This child who you think is shy knows everything about you. He knows how you smell, he knows what your natural hair color is, he knows exactly what your voice feels like to his ears. He knows how many times you said something nice or something unkind, and he will probably remember every word you said for years to come. And he will ask me about what you said. He will process and process until he can make sense of it.

This child, with all of his anxiety, spent an entire year mentally preparing himself for his first day of kindergarten. We made lists with checkboxes. We bought a calendar he could keep to mark down the months and days. We did drive-bys of school buildings and their playgrounds. We talked about what kindergarten would be like every night for a year.

Finally, Spencer’s first week of kindergarten arrived. He is attending our neighborhood school, which was not our first choice. There is another public school about 15 minutes away that is small and cozy, and it happens to employ excellent policies and procedures regarding allergies. But he did not get into that school. I was dismayed, but I wasn’t going to let him know it.

Instead, we talked about his great new school. It is a huge, brand-new building! There will be so many kids to play with! It’s okay that you don’t know anyone — this is a chance to meet new friends! He bought in.

In fact, he even decided that he wanted to take the bus. I did not see that coming. I always assumed I would be a mom who drops off and picks up her kids at school. However, Spencer had watched the school bus pick up kids right outside of our house for five years, and he was convinced that he wanted to do the same. So, there he was, on the first day of school, getting on that bus. I wanted to drink in the moment of watching my sweet little boy bravely step into his new world, but the darn bus driver took off like a bat out of hell, and I didn’t even see where he sat down (and I’m just hoping he actually did before she slammed the doors shut and screeched off leaving smoke in her tracks).

I am asking him to slay a dragon every single day. Every day that he gets up, he has to face his biggest fear, with only the tools of a 6-year-old.

When Spencer got home that first afternoon, he was tired, but said his day was great. The next day, he said his day was “fine.” When I asked him why just fine, he explained that he had to go to a playground with older kids, and then no one told him where to line up for lunch. At lunchtime, he had to sit all alone at a table because of his allergies. All alone. All of his friends sat across the room. He then told me that he was crying so hard that he couldn’t eat, and that finally a counselor came and sat with him. Luckily, when he told me this, he was snuggling against me with his back curved into my stomach, so he couldn’t see my face streaming with tears.

I realized at that moment that I am asking him to slay a dragon every single day. Every day that he gets up, he has to face his biggest fear, with only the tools of a 6-year-old. He hasn’t completed his suit of armor yet. All he has are his observations and his grit.

While he might not seem it, this kid of mine is tough. He is also incredibly bright, really, really funny and creative. He sees, watches, smells and hears everything. He is not shy. He is a profound little boy with so much to offer, if you just give him the benefit of your time and patience. Use your soft voice and then just listen. The person you meet will shock the hell out of you. The person you meet will be the boy who returns to school the next day, and the day after that, despite his worst fears being realized. He is the boy who told me tonight, “Mama, I can’t wait for school tomorrow!”

And that is why I needed to publicly celebrate my boy Spencer, the bravest kid I know. Just don’t tell him, because he wouldn’t like it.

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