An open letter to kids who just watched Iron Man 3

Hi there. If you want to understand what this post is about, you should probably watch Iron Man 3. Go ahead. It’s a really fun movie. You’ll like it.

It’s okay. I can wait. I don’t want to spoil you.

Have you watched it? Okay. I’m glad, because now we can talk about it. Wasn’t that a  great time at the movies? Did you see that whole thing with the Mandarin coming? What a great fakeout, right? And Pepper! I’m glad she got to punch the guy who kidnapped her in his big stupid face with her flaming fist. The closest I’ve ever come to doing that is twisting the nipple of a guy who grabbed my ass as I descended the front steps at a house party. He was too high to feel any pain, though, so it wasn’t really satisfying. (True story.)

Anyway, I’m writing today to clear up some things about what it’s really like when an adult has a panic attack, like Tony does in the movie. Sometimes, like Tony’s new friend Harley, you’ll be nearby when this happens. And, like Harley, you may be getting on the nearby adult’s nerves. But you should keep in mind that unlike Harley, you’re not the one to blame for the panic attack. The panic attack did not happen because you said the wrong word, like “New York,” or “wormhole,” or because you asked the wrong question, or because you asked too many questions too quickly. Doing those things is annoying, sure, but it’s no cause for a full-blown panic attack. Panic attacks are not your fault. They’re not anybody’s fault. They’re like thunderstorms. They’re a natural phenomenon that happens when all the right conditions are met inside the body and mind. Like how it has to be cold enough to snow, but not too cold, otherwise clouds won’t form. Like that. The reason Tony blames his panic attacks on Harley isn’t because Harley actually caused them, but because Tony has a bad habit of refusing to take responsibility for his feelings and actions. He’s blaming Harley because he knows, deep down, that his anxiety is his own problem to deal with, and he doesn’t know how to solve it yet. In fact, that’s really what the movie is about — how refusing to take responsibility for your actions only creates bigger problems down the road.

I’m telling all you this because some day, this may happen to you, and that it’s not your job to keep the panic attack from happening to the adult, or to talk the adult out of the panic attack, or figure out the right thing for the adult to do that will make the crying/shaking/hiding/panting stop. Now, it’s always your responsibility to help someone in need — if you see somebody drowning, or getting beat up, or whatever, it’s your job to call for help. (In fact, that’s what The Amazing Spider-Man is about.) But things like panic attacks are different. Someday your mom may not pick you up from school, and you think she’s forgotten so you wait a while even though she’s not answering her phone, so finally you walk home alone and find her huddled under the covers saying she’s about to die, but she can’t explain why or how, and she won’t let you call an ambulance, either. Or maybe your dad will just quietly drive to the shoulder of the road and start crying and not be able to stop, and won’t answer your questions, either, even though it’s getting dark and you’re supposed to be picking up a bucket of chicken. Understand that nothing you can do will make these moments better. Nothing you can do will make them worse, either, unless you decide to take this opportunity to set the drapes on fire or try that anti-freeze you’ve always been curious about. Basically, so long as you sit tight and don’t do anything stupid, your impact on the situation is negligible. And that’s fine, because it’s not your problem to solve. It’s not your broken machine to fix. Like Tony, every adult around you is lugging around the empty, shattered prototype version of themselves — one that didn’t work, or crashed, or burned out, or whatever. But unlike Tony, they can’t expect other people to help fix it. Only they can fix it, on their own. It’s not your job. It’s not anybody else’s job, either. You are your own mechanic.

Someday, you will be towing your own failed prototype behind you. And you will have to fix it on your own. And there will be help, if you need it, from the other adults that love you. And you will have a whole big toolbox full of tools to choose from. Like doctors. And therapists. And yoga teachers. And your friends. You probably noticed how Tony spends the first half of the movie building imaginary friends, but after he spends some time alone, he’s okay spending more time with his real friends, like Rhodes and Pepper and Bruce. That’s because real friends are the ones who can help you through that kind of thing. The imaginary ones can only go so far. And maybe, if you’re lucky, your parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins will be able to help you, too.

But for now, just remember: adults work to earn your love, and you work to earn their respect. You are not a tool in the adult toolbox. You are the one they are building from scratch.

3 thoughts on “An open letter to kids who just watched Iron Man 3”

  1. While I agree that panic attacks are no ones fault, it is important to mention that in the case of some conditions, like OCD, panic attacks CAN be triggered, I can vouch for this first hand unfortunately. If Tony was suffering from PTSD (which seems likely) then certain things might trigger the attacks as well. Of course its not the poor kids fault that Tony is reacting the way he is, and yeah he’s kinda being a jerk about it.

  2. Thank you for such a wise and loving post. I hope lots of kids can read this and understand what happens to those having an attack and those sitting next to them, holding their hand, wiping their nose and helping them be in the fear but not alone. You sure helped me and I’m so grateful. You were and are so brave.

  3. Great post, and it gave me new-found respect for the movie in question. I just wanted to say that kids can have panic attacks too. I haven’t had one since I was in college, but the worst ones were when I was a tween, before I got my HFA and GAD diagnosis and began to understand why my mind randomly turned traitor on me. Anyway, while I agree with what you said, it also bears mentioning that a panic attack is not the time to have a little fun at the expense of the person dealing with it, because they are extremely vulnerable. The best thing you can do is give them a moment and some space while they struggle through it and find their composure.

    @David K.: Triggers can be anything, but that’s not why the attack occurs. It occurs because all the conditions aligned and were primed to be triggered. This is very important because people need to understand that they didn’t cause the attack, they were just there and so became the trigger, as much a victim of circumstance as the person panicking.

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