How I Helped My Son Through an Anxiety Attack by Using 'Inside Out'

My 7-year-old son is in the first grade and struggles with anxiety. He is typically quiet and not the emotional type. He gets along with almost everyone and enjoys going to school.

A few months ago, I overslept and was running late taking the kids to school. I could sense a little panic in my son’s behavior, but I didn’t think too much into it. When we arrived at their school 10 minutes late, my son refused to get out of the car. I was running late for work myself and was in a rush to get the kids to their classrooms. I could see his scared face and body tense up so I parked my car and walked him up to his classroom. Thirty minutes later, my son, his teacher, the principal and myself were sitting outside his classroom trying to get him to relax and walk into his classroom. I have never seen this side of him before. This was more than just being shy – this was an anxiety attack.

I recognized his symptoms and behaviors and have seen them in myself. He wasn’t crying or throwing a tantrum or screaming because he just didn’t want to go to class. His body was shaking. He just stood there moving his hands in front of his face back and forth, trying to breathe and work up the courage to walk into his classroom. Eventually, I was forced to leave and let the teachers handle the situation. I felt like utter crap walking away. (Worst. Parent. Ever.) I wanted to take him home and talk to him about what he was thinking and what his fears were. It was an extremely difficult moment for me as a parent.

After this incident, I did my very best to leave the house early and always arrive a few minutes early so he could get to his class on time. Well, just last week we left the house at our usual early time and hit traffic. There was a horrible car accident, and I knew we were going to be late for school. Because I was sitting in traffic, I had some time to come up with a plan to help my son face his fear. I kept quiet about the time until he asked me in concern if we were going to be late. I said we were and that I was going to be there by his side to help him get into his classroom.

I had to make this as distracting and fun as possible. Sure, it may sound ridiculous, but it was all I could come up with in such a short time. Right after he asked me if we were going to be late, I mentioned the movie “Inside Out.” I asked him to tell me the five emotions that the movie talked about: Fear, Disgust, Anger, Sadness and Joy, he responded. I said, “Great! Right now, in this moment Fear is taking over all the other emotions in your mind and trying to stop you from going into your classroom. Let’s tell Fear to step aside for a moment so you can handle this yourself. But – don’t tell him to go away! We need Fear. We don’t want to never see him again. He’s an emotion we can’t and don’t necessarily want to get rid of.” My son laughed and said, “OK, Mom.” I looked in the rearview mirror and could see him in deep thought as if he was actually picturing the emotions in his head just like in the movie. It was cute.

Perhaps I went a little too far, but I was having fun with this scenario so I kept going:

Me: Can you tell me what Disgust is saying right now?
Son: I hope we don’t have carrots for lunch today! Gross!

Me: Haha great! Now what is Anger telling you?
Son: Stupid traffic! People need to learn how to drive better!

Me: No kidding! Now, what about Sadness?
Son: I hope everyone in the car accident is OK. (So sweet, right?!)

Me: I was thinking the same thing! Now, what about Joy?
Son: Recess is going to so much fun!

Me: “Awesome, now let’s remember to tell Fear it’s all going to be OK. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

He seemed incredibly distracted at this point. So far my plan had been working. Of course, it helped that his big sister was engaged as well.

We pulled up to the school, I parked and walked my son to his classroom while trying to remain positive and discussing such Fear. My son was giggling and basically looking at me like I was the silliest person. (Let’s face it, I was.) It came down to the moment of drop off, and he started to tense up and shake. I got down on his level and looked him in the eyes and said, “What do we tell Fear?” He replied, “Step aside!” Then he grabbed the door handle and walked into his classroom – just. like. that.

Wow. It actually worked.

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