May 7, 2018

Anxiety, the new epidemic

My camp team has been going to the biggest camp directors conference in the world, the American Camp Association Tri-State Conference, for years. 4000 camp directors, four days, about 20 workshops on offer in every time slot, all day every day. Many learning options for us. But not as many these days. Why? Because they’re focussing on mental health at camp.

Because anxiety is the new epidemic at summer camps. Hence the attention.

Is it real, or are we just noticing it more? Unfortunately it’s real. 25 years ago camps didn’t get calls from parents saying their child is too anxious to swim in the lake… or go on canoe trip…  or leave home. There was homesickness, and it went away after a few days. Anxiety doesn’t go away. And it’s affecting staff too, stopping some of them from performing all their duties.

Why the anxiety epidemic? Because parenting, which for our parents was so simple, has become a minefield of competing ideologies and practices; we can’t enjoy the easy confidence our parents had about getting it right. This makes everyone anxious. Because post 9/11 the world feels more anxious. Because the internet brings us too much scary news 24/7. Because we fear for our kids’ employment future so we infect them with our worry, so they get tutored to get into the right school so they can get into the right university program so they can get the right internships so they can….

We drive them to school because we fear the streets. We put them in after-school and weekend programs so they can learn the right stuff.

Gone are the endless carefree hours of unstructured free play, gone are road hockey and the feeling, for kids, that the actual physical world is a safe and wonderful place to explore. Gone are the social learnings of play. In their place is the new world of Facebook and Instagram and SnapChat, a wifi world where anxiety thrives like mildew on a wet bathing suit in a plastic bag. Because every day, every hour, kids see shiny images they’re worried about living up to, they witness incessant friending and un-friending, they see people going to parties they’re not invited to.  Which all cranks up social anxiety.

Enough of the problem. What are we, as parents, to do about it? Do we send them off to camp with anxiety in their invisible baggage? Not without an “anxiety toolkit” – at their peril.

A robust camp kids anxiety toolkit takes an expert to build. If your anxious kid has a therapist, they should be putting tools in the child’s hands. If they’re not, get a new therapist. There are a lot of them out there.

Anti-anxiety tools go like this: I’m claustrophobic. Really. Elevators scare me. Crowded or rickety elevators are almost impossible for me to enter. And yet sometimes life requires this of me. So I use my favourite anti-anxiety tool: Meditation breathing. It doesn’t make the fear go away. The fear is a familiar lifelong visitor. But the meditation breathing quiets the claustrophobia monster’s voice.

Another great tool in the toolkit is positive self-talk. This is where we spit in the face of the fear. We say: ”I can do this!” Or “This feels hard, but I know I can manage it.” Or “I’ve done this before and I can do it again.” I find muttering these incantations under my breath or saying them aloud to be really helpful. Saying it out loud makes it real, and then you can manage to do it, most times.

The third strong tool is having helpful sayings typed or written up and posted around – in their cubby at camp, in their toiletry bag, in their journal. My favourite helpful saying is taped to the top of my jewellery box. It says: “Feelings are not reality. Take 3 deep breaths.” This is for when big bad thoughts or scary worries attack. It works every time.

And speaking of journals, please send your anxious child to camp with either a journal or a “tool box.” This is where they put all their anti-anxiety tools, and where they go to find them when they forget, because forget they will. When you write to them at camp, remind them about it. Express confidence in their ability to stride through their anxiety and use the tools to do what they want to do. Don’t tell them not to worry or they’ll feel unheard. Tell them you know it’s hard and you know they can do it. Because we can.

How to help kids with anxiety do important things... like go to camp
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