Children’s Literature and Childhood Anxiety
When most people hear the word anxiety they picture stressed out adults who are struggling to balance the demands placed upon them by life and all its troubles. Unfortunately, anxiety is so much more then that. It affects people of all ages, including young children. It is a recognized, treatable disorder with many subsets. The most commonly known type is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It can be caused not only by living under stressful situations, but also by an imbalance of mood hormones in the brain (Stein and Sareen 2061). There are many ways to combat the effects of GAD, but finding someone or something that relates to the patient’s experiences and puts their emotions into perspective can be a huge step towards managing the struggle and bringing healing from the disorder. Literature that addresses the experiences of someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder like GAD can bring that type of healing, especially if it contains characters that the reader can relate to. Unfortunately there is not much children’s literature that takes on this important topic, even though there are many children who suffer from anxiety. However, the children’s book entitled “There’s a Bully in my Brain” by Kristin O’Rourke addresses the issue of childhood anxiety disorders from a child’s perspective. This book gives children who struggle with anxiety a relatable character who shares their experiences and offers advice on how to handle anxious feelings. Children who suffer from anxiety disorders will benefit from O’Rourke’s book “There’s a Bully in my Brain” because it will help them to understand and define their mental disorder, they will realize they are not the only ones to suffer from anxiety, and it will give them practical advice to manage their anxiety.
Anxiety can take on many forms and be caused by many reasons. Some children suffer from anxiety because of a significant traumatic event in their past such as abuse or neglect. This type of anxiety would be defined as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can be managed primarily through counseling. Symptoms include flashbacks to the traumatic event, and panic attacks in situations that remind the child of the trauma (Turcek 1796). If children who suffer from this type of trauma read literature such as O’Rourke’s “There’s a Bully in my Brain” they may find significant healing in its relatable characters and their struggles with anxiety.
A second type of anxiety that has already been mentioned is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) which is caused by an imbalance of mood controlling brain hormones such as serotonin. Those who suffer from GAD oftentimes also experience depression and anger management difficulties. This is because the child’s brain reuptakes the serotonin that is produced before it can be distributed to the areas of the brain that control the child’s moods and behaviors. In many cases, the child’s doctor will prescribe a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) to prevent the brain from reuptaking the serotonin too quickly. Normally, a councilor will work with the children who take SSRI’s to help them manage the difficult emotions until their hormones are rebalanced. GAD can sometimes be passed genetically, making anxiety a hereditary disorder. Symptoms include anxious feelings or panic attacks with no pinpointed origin or specific fear, anger without reason, and depression even when no sad event has recently occurred (Ellis and Hudson 153). O’Rourke’s book can help those who suffer from this invisible enemy to understand the complicated fears they suffer from by defining the symptoms.
A third major type of anxiety that children experience are phobias. There are two major categories of phobias, specific and complex. Specific phobias are normally caused by past traumatic events, just like PTSD. Complex phobias are normally caused by hormone imbalances or genetics much like GAD. Each type of phobia is treated using either SSRI’s, counseling, or both depending on its cause. Unlike GAD, phobias cause very specific fears of objects or situations (Hamm 579).
A fourth major type of anxiety experienced by children is social anxiety. This is the deep fear of being humiliated in social situations. This is not the same as shyness. It is profound anxiety caused by social interactions, especially in large groups. This can often manifest in physical symptoms such as raised heartbeat or nausea. It can also cause a child to withdraw from social interactions with peers, which can further cause depression and isolation. Social anxiety can stunt a child’s development both socially and mentally because children learn mostly from their peers at young ages (Seedat 195).
When people first begin experiencing the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, they often times struggle to understand what it is and why it is happening. One of the major benefits of the book “There’s a Bully in my Brain” is that it helps children to understand and define the anxious feelings they are experiencing. Anxiety is especially difficult for young children to understand because they have probably never experienced it before. O’Rourke uses the literary element of personification and defines the anxiety as a “bully” inside the brain of the main character, a young boy. She describes the bully as an uninvited guest who shows up whenever the little boy is trying a new activity or having fun ( O’Rourke 1). This is an accurate description of the anxious feelings children may experience when they are asked to try something new. But it also addresses the sad reality that children can feel anxiety while simply living their everyday lives. A child may just be playing and having fun, but the anxiety can attack at any moment and get in the way. This specifically mirrors the symptoms of GAD, because it shows itself in everyday life without warning and without reason. If a child were suffering from GAD, this page in “There’s a Bully in my Brain” would help her to define her feelings and express them to an adult who could assister her in seeking treatment.
O’Rourke does not just help children with GAD define their emotions, but also those with other disorders such as phobias. The little boy in the story says that sometimes the bully in his brain causes him to be afraid of his school bus getting a flat tire and his parents forgetting to pick him up from school (O’Rourke 3). This situational phobia could be either specific or complex depending on the past experiences of the character, which remains unknown. Children who suffer from separation anxiety from their parents could also relate to this page of the book. The little boy says the bully also tells him to be afraid of thunderstorms and cool rollercoasters (O’Rourke 5). This page in the book describes a specific object phobia. Children who suffer from either situational or object phobias will relate to these descriptions of anxiety and can in turn describe them to a concerned parent or councilor. The bully also tells the little boy that he has to be afraid of the dark because of the monsters in his closet (O’Rourke 2). Although this may seem like a natural fear because most children go through a stage of being afraid of the dark, when it becomes a chronic fear it can turn into sleep anxiety (Cowie 140). Children who suffer from a persistent inability to sleep because of their fears may find comfort in understanding that their fears are just lies to told to them by their “brain bully.”
The final specific anxiety disorder that “There’s a Bully in my Brain” helps children understand and define is social anxiety. The main character says that the “bully” stops him from making friends because they may not like him, and that it stops him from trying out for the baseball team because he might not be good enough to play (O’Rourke 4). Any child that suffers with social anxiety would connect to this aspect of the little boy’s experience. In this way a parent or councilor can use “There’s a Bully in my Brain” to identify a child’s specific type of anxiety disorder, and help explain to the child what it is and why he or she feels afraid so often.
Children who suffer from anxiety disorders will also benefit from the book “There’s a Bully in my Brain” because they will learn that they are not the only ones to suffer from anxious feelings. Anxiety is an isolating disorder. It makes those who suffer push away their loved ones out of a fear that even they themselves do not understand. It makes them feel alone, like they are the only people in the whole world who could be feeling the way that they do (Klingler 42). Hearing the stories of others who suffer from anxiety disorders helps people who are struggling to cope with the fear. For this reason, children’s literature that tells the stories of children with anxiety is extremely helpful anxious children who read it. A child reading “There’s a Bully in my Brian” can relate to the little boy and the “bully” that resides inside his head. O’Rourke’s book can help children feel less isolated in their anxiety and realize that suffering from anxious feelings does not make them weird or different from many other children.
One aspect of O’Rourke’s book that makes its stand out from other literature about children with anxiety is that it gives its readers practical advice about how to handle their anxiety in the future. The first advice O’Rourke gives her young readers to combat their mental “bullies” is to pay attention to the warning signs that their bodies give them when an anxiety attack is on its way. She lists symptoms that they can recognize such as a faster heartbeat, sweaty palms, crying, heavy breathing, “butterflies” in the tummy, and wanting to hide under the covers. She suggests taking long, slow breaths to control the symptoms. To model this for children, she suggests that her readers pretend they are smelling a freshly baked pastry that is too hot to eat. She asks them to pretend to blow on the treat to cool it off and to control their breaths. Finally she leaves them with the final suggestion of thinking positive thoughts that help them stand up to their “bullies” (O’Rourke 7). This page of advice to readers is so interesting and important because O’Rourke not only helps children define their anxieties but also to handle their feelings once they understand them. She is very aware of her intended audience’s cognitive developmental level, and instead of just telling them to control their breathing during panic attacks, she gives them the strong mental image of blowing on a hot pastry to help them practically use her advice. This practical application is the pinnacle of all the information the book gives, and makes “There’s a Bully in my Brain” an incredible resource for children who struggle with anxiety.
Although children are the intended audience for “There’s a Bully in my Brain” they are not the only readers who can benefit from it. Parents who have children that struggle with anxiety can use the book to see the world through their children’s eyes. This will help parents who do not understand their children’s anxieties better connect with their children and be of greater help to them. This book can also be very useful to councilors who are meeting with a child with anxiety and trying to define the specific type of anxiety the child suffers from. If the councilor reads the book to or with the child, monitors the reactions of the child, and asks the child which page reminds him the most of his own brain bully, the councilor can better define the type of anxiety the child is struggling with. The fact that O’Rourke gives anxiety the name and characteristics of a “bully” is an actual management strategy used by many councilors. Sometimes councilors tell their patients to give a name to their anxiety so that they can differentiate from their rational thoughts and the thoughts that belong to their anxiety (Hayes 687). Personifying the anxiety as a bully is the same strategy with a different name. Overall, O’Rourke’s “There’s a Bully in my Brain” is a very useful tool for anyone involved in the life of a child with anxiety.
Brain bullies can take on all shapes and sizes and affect the children they inhabit in many different ways. O’Rourke expertly used this personification of anxiety to illustrate to her readers what anxious thoughts feel like inside the head of a child. Her story can help its young readers to better understand why they are so controlled by their fears, and give a name and definition to the battle against fear that they feel the cannot win. Her book can give its readers the gift of community, and its pages will reveal to them that they are not the only ones to struggle against irrational fears. “There’s a Bully in my Brain” gives its audience practical ways to overcome the fears that consume them, and can be used as an incredible tool for concerned parents and caring councilors to come along side anxious children. O’Rourke gives hope to children who live in a world full of fear, and a new perspective to those whole love them most.