How one book-turned-musical can help you understand your child's anxiety

Dear Evan Hansen is a book about a boy who faces social anxiety and feels invisible at school. An expert explains what you can learn about your kids from this book.

 Social anxiety can be isolating (illustrative) (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Social anxiety can be isolating (illustrative)
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

The book Dear Evan Hansen is based on a musical that was a Broadway hit and was made into a movie. The musical was really successful as it captivated the public with its sincerity, a charming story about a teen which raised awareness of a common problem that isn’t talked about - social anxiety in kids and teens.

Social anxiety is the most common of anxiety disorders and about 7% of people have it in different intensities and manifestations. The first signs of social anxiety are apparent in childhood and become more pronounced as kids become teens. Anxiety doesn’t dissipate on its own, and people who aren’t treated when they’re young will deal with its consequences in adulthood. This can mean distance and detachment, reducing personal abilities and harming personal potential in all facets of life: studies, employment, friendships, and with family.

The book tells the story of Evan Hansen, a teen with social anxiety who feels invisible in his school. The only one who relates to him is Conor, a thug, but that attitude is expressed in bullying. After Conor dies, a letter addressed to Evan is found with his stuff and everyone thinks that the two were close friends. Conor's parents see Evan as the last chance to understand their son. The misunderstanding becomes a tangle of lies which brings Evan what he’s always dreamed of i.e.popularity and a real human connection, until he begins to lose control.

Here are some quotes from the book that people dealing with social anxiety will surely identify with, and with each quote is a professional explanation with a personal touch from Anat Heldstein Ben-Ami, director of children and youth at Rakefet, an organization with programs to help people with social anxiety.

Social anxiety and self-judgment

 Cast member Ben Platt and his boyfriend Noah Galvin attend a premiere for the film ''Dear Evan Hansen'' at Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, California, US, September 22, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/MARIO ANZUONI) Cast member Ben Platt and his boyfriend Noah Galvin attend a premiere for the film ''Dear Evan Hansen'' at Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, California, US, September 22, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/MARIO ANZUONI)

“I have to assume that this "true" self is better with life. Better with people. And also less shy. For example, I'm sure he would never have given up the chance to introduce himself to Zoe Murphy at last year's jazz concert. He wouldn’t spend so much time deciding which word would best express his feelings about her performance, but wouldn’t make him look like a stalker: good, awesome, spectacular, glamorous, magical, firm - and then, after finally compromising on very good, didn’t talk to her because he was too worried about his sweaty hands.’

One of the characteristics of social anxiety is a particularly strict self-judgment. The same voice inside our head that keeps wondering what others will think of us and how we’re perceived is dealing with social anxiety and being convinced that people judge others harshly. One result of self-judgment is avoidance. If I’m seen as an idiot/unwanted anyway it’s better for me to be silent and not try at all. In groups for children with social anxiety at Rakefet we learn to cancel these inhibiting thoughts, to understand that they’re inside our head, and to replace them with positive thoughts which will allow us to dare more.

Social anxiety is much more complex than you think

‘"So you just decided not to eat last night?" This is my mom, standing over me holding the twenty-dollar bill I didn’t use. I close my laptop and shove it under the pillow. "I wasn’t hungry." “Come on, sweetie. You should be able to order food if I'm at work. Today everything can be done online. You don’t even have to talk to people.”  But this isn’t true. You have to talk to the delivery person at  the door.’

The lives of those dealing with social anxiety are made up of many different challenges every day. A person without anxiety won’t even think of these mundane details. The seemingly simplest, routine actions are sometimes perceived as a day-to-day rupture for an anxious person. So progress should be at a personal pace, with a sense of success and achievement. A lot of tiny successes ultimately produce the change.

Parents: Their role

‘"I don’t want another year like this, where every Friday night you sit alone in front of your computer. You have to find a way to be more open and communicate." I try to. It's not that I'm not trying. She notices something on my desk. "Hey, I know." She takes a marker out of the cup. "Maybe you would walk around today and ask everyone to sign your cast? It's a perfect icebreaker, doesn't it?" It's hard for me to think of anything worse …’

I take the market with a sigh without looking straight at her. "Ah." She walks towards the door, and just when I think I'm free, she turns around with a worried smile. "I'm already proud of you." "Oh. Good." Her smile drops a little, and she leaves. What am I supposed to say? She tells me she's proud, but her eyes say something else. She looks at me like I'm a stain in the bath she can’t erase and no matter what product she uses she’s proud of me? I don’t see how this is possible. Okay, so let's just keep lying to each other.’

Being a parent of a child with social anxiety isn’t simple. Seeing your kid in distress, the social difficulty often 'presses' on a parent’s sensitive points. Sometimes because the parent has dealt or has anxiety, and sometimes vice versa, i.e. a parent finds it difficult to understand the "choice" in avoidance. It’s sometimes difficult to know what to say and how to help.

Interesting points about social anxiety

‘‘I've taken what I needed from my locker, but I'm still standing here, pretending I'm looking for something. There's too much time until the bell rings, and if I close my locker now, I'll have to turn around a bit. I'm very bad at turning around a bit. Such a rotation requires self-confidence, proper clothing and a confident yet relaxed posture.’

Social anxiety is 'transparent anxiety'. In many cases, it has no external manifestation (and if there is, such as flushing, excessive sweating - it can usually be hidden through distance and avoidance), so usually we don’t know what distress the person next to us is in. So, only raising awareness and talking about the phenomenon will allow those who feel this way to seek help.Schools

The fact that I spent the summer far from my normal life made the situation even more stressful when it was time to go back. By mid-August, I was already stressed that summer was over and the school year was starting.

Changes, transitions, and entering an educational-social framework are very stressful matters, but vacations are also hard. During holidays students dealing with social anxiety break away from the framework that requires them to leave home and have social connections. The isolation during long vacations is unbearable and of course, requires adjustment and strength to return to school at the end. Groups at Rakefet form a stable and continuous social anchor and help both alleviate loneliness during the holidays and deal with returning to school afterwards.

Important to remember: Dealing with social anxiety is much more than just their anxiety

The excerpts quoted from the book give a glimpse into Evan's social anxiety and his coping with it, but the book is much more than that and is about relationships - family, society, growing up with the human desire of all of us to be visible, belong, form identity and the prices we pay. Those with social anxiety are whole and complex human beings. Children for parents, siblings, friends, students, music lovers. Those who play video games, draw or like chess. As long as social anxiety doesn’t define someone’s whole self, it’s simply a challenge to deal with.