October 13, 2015

Supporting Anxious Kids

By Mara Kates, Assistant Director

At camp, we get a unique epidemiological perspective on childhood afflictions. I am not a scientist but I would hazard a guess that rates of childhood anxiety are on the rise. Whether a kid has a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder or is simply afraid of the dark, children (and their parents) seem more fearful than ever these days. I’ve seen tons of articles lately advising parents how to support their anxious children and as a camp director and social worker I thought I’d add my 2 cents to the mix.

To sum it up, don’t trust your instincts!

It’s hard to see people we love in distress so it’s natural for us to want to relieve negative feelings for them. We want to take away the thing that’s making them anxious or reassure them that it’s not going to hurt them. The problem is that even if anxious kids were to believe our reassurances (which they usually don’t), they would not be learning how to manage those feelings. If you’ve ever tried to reason with an anxious child, you’ll know that it’s futile because anxiety is irrational. A kid who has anxiety about getting in the lake, for example, isn’t just afraid of being cold or getting a leech on them (both of which are easy to fix) – they literally feel like the world will come to a catastrophic end if they get in the lake.

Research shows that the best cure for phobias is controlled exposure therapy. Anxiety, like phobia, is a disproportionate, often irrational fear of a situation, and when we force ourselves to experience it a couple of important things happen. Firstly, we usually learn that it’s not as bad as we thought it was going to be (or at least that we can survive it without the world crashing down around us). Usually it takes many, many times before our fear subsides completely, but each time becomes a little bit easier knowing you’ve survived it before. Secondly, exposing ourselves to fears shows us that we have power over them. We can’t make ourselves not scared but we can choose not to be governed by those scared feelings.

So how can we use this to support children with anxiety?

Number one is don’t remove them from situations that make them anxious. Don’t let them get out of their canoe trip or their school trip because they are scared of it. This is letting the anxiety be in charge and teaching the kid that there actually may be something to fear. Don’t tell them everything’s going to be ok. It might not.

But the feelings of anxiety are often much worse than the feeling of whatever they are scared of (e.g. being cold, being lonely). Especially the first few times they experience it, it will feel unbearable. But they’ll get through it. Tell them that. Ask them to recall other times when they did things they were afraid of and how they felt afterward. Tell them how proud of them you’ll be afterward, and then push them into it. Quickly.

Which brings us to number two: don’t spend hours convincing, cajoling, or negotiating. Normally at camp we say that listening to kids is the most important thing we do, but it doesn’t work with anxiety. Give them 5 minutes (and tell them at the beginning so they’re not surprised) to validate their feelings and show that you recognize how powerful they are, and then set a limit and move on. Because anxiety is an illogical thing, you won’t be able to argue it away, and the more time you spend trying the more worked up you (and your kid) will get. Anxiety is like a cloud that will fill up any space it is given and it needs limits to prevent it from taking over.

Number three is to externalize the anxiety. Acknowledge its existence (and how difficult it makes things) and remind your kid that they can choose what to do with it. Remind them who they are aside from their anxiety and that it is a barrier that they have the power to overcome. Maybe even give it a name and have them talk to it so they can experience it as a separate entity from themselves.

Pick a time when your kid is NOT feeling anxious and get them to come up with a list of strategies they can use to deal with their anxiety when it arises. It is important that THEY come up with this list themselves; they’ll know best what works for them and they’ll be more invested in utilizing solutions that they thought of. Ask them what has worked in the past to help calm them down. You can tell them what works for you and let them decide if they want to try that, but don’t tell them what to do. Write it all down. Then when the anxiety sets in, hand them the list and say: “pick one of your tools and try it out”. If that one doesn’t work get them to try another one. And then another. The key here is that you are not managing their anxiety for them. Tell them that you are there for them and you are proud of them for fighting this, but don’t do it for them. Hand them the tool kit and walk away. Literally.

It’s a scary world out there and of course great parents want to protect their kids from everything that could hurt them. But what if by trying to protect them we’re actually reducing their ability to deal with uncomfortable feelings and situations on their own? One of the hardest things parents have to do is watch their kids suffer, but letting them do so is sometimes the best gift you can give them.

Anxiety is like a cloud that will fill up any space it is given and it needs limits to prevent it from taking over

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