Listen to Episode 6 of the Vigilant Voices™ podcast, You Can Help Kids with Anxiety.

Jeannine Panzera: Hello, listeners. You are listening to Vigilant Voices podcast.

Kristin Blalock: And we’re so glad to have you on this journey with us.

J: And it’s not always an easy journey because our work at CASA is hard. We meet children that may be in dark places, but we have learned that it is important to know about the challenges facing children and families to ensure that no child faces abuse, neglect, or trauma. And as you all know, that is exactly what this podcast is all about.

K: Yes. And the dark places are sometimes not just what is happening externally, but what is going on internally inside of a child’s mind. How do you help a child whose battle is inside their head?

J: This is a tough one. We are posing this question today because we want to draw attention to these struggles. And this is a great time to do it because it is Mental Health Awareness Month.

K: Mental health concerns were actually cited in 62% of our CASA cases last year. So this is definitely a prevalent issue. It’s a real challenge for families when a parent struggles with severe anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses. But today, we’re not going to focus on parental issues. We’re going to talk more about children with mental health challenges.

J: And this is a subject that is very near and dear to our hearts at CASA and the work that we do.

K: It is. And it makes me think of a recent CASA case with a teenage girl that I’m going to call Brie. Brie found herself involved in the court system for truancy, which is related to neglect, and that’s why CASA was appointed. But it didn’t take long for Brie’s CASA volunteer to realize that the root of her missing school was severe anxiety. Brie had lived through a sexual assault and was now scared to death to return to school.

J: Right. And a lot of times what we learn with truancy is that there is usually a very significant underlying issue. And so in this case, Brie had a horribly traumatic experience that was the root of that anxiety. And so my heart certainly goes out to her for having been a victim. But I also want to pause here to point out that children can struggle with mental illness even if they have that perfectly wonderful childhood. It’s not always rooted in some severe trauma. I mean, it can be biological. We can be genetically predisposed to mental illness as well.

K: Let me throw a few stats your way. I was researching this recently, and there are 4.5 million children in the United States diagnosed and living with anxiety.

J: That is a lot.

K: It is a lot. And the rate of mental illness is significantly higher for adolescents and young adults than for adults. So for adolescents, it’s up to 50%, and for young adults it’s 30%.

J: This is a major crisis that we’re seeing for children and teens right now, and so many are really struggling. Some of the struggles that we most often see are anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post traumatic stress disorder.

K: We’re going to focus today on anxiety because it is the most common mental health concern for children.

J: There are so many areas where anxiety can grow. So there’s what we call just sort of generalize danxiety when a child is just generally anxious, but it can present as a specific phobia or asocial anxiety, or they’re really having a lot of panic attacks or panic disorders. This is real for students right now and kids that pressures from school to perform at that highest level. I have to be the best at this. I have to be the best to go to this school.

K: And it’s just constant.

J: How about pressures from social media to look a certain way? Or are we measuring popularity due to the number of followers or likes that we have? All of this feeds anxiety in this kind of generalized way.

K: These are all things that adults struggle with feeling anxious about. So you can only imagine the pressures on the children. And what’s interesting to me is how differently children can act when they’re battling anxiety. Some are kind of quiet and well behaved and they go unnoticed, and others cope with their anxiety, with what we would call disruptive behaviors.

J: And I think if either way for how children act, anxiety can be overlooked somewhere. Let’s use an example of a school setting, because I think what happens is children, because our teachers and our school personnel are so busy every day, but they kind of get lumped into the good student or the bad student categories. But there is so much more than this very simplistic categorization, because there’s everything in between for those that really struggle with what we might call like episodic anxiety. Yeah.

K: And I know kids who go to both extremes, but the shared root cause is anxiety.

J: Our CASA volunteers are often interacting with children dealing with this level of anxiety. And even if they don’t have a formal diagnosis, they’re really likely feeling anxious in the moment because they’re in the court system, their family is in the court system, and so they’re really trying to process whatever trauma that they have experienced.

K: So let’s walk through a few suggestions that we have found on ways to best support a child with anxiety. And many of the suggestions we’re going to share today come from an article written by Dr. Goldstein and posted on the Child Mind Institute site.

J: And I assume we’ll put a link to the article in the show notes. I think that might be helpful.

K: This particular article stood out to me because the subheading reads, “respect feelings without empowering fears.” And that sums up exactly what we need to learn to do for our children.

J: Yeah, but that is a hard balance to strike.

K: It so is because you want to show empathy, but you don’t want to fuel fears.

J: Right. And so we have to find a balance, which let’s all say and acknowledge that can be very hard. But we have to recognize that we also just can’t magically take away a child’s anxiety as much as we want to.

K: I wish we could.

J: And so our goal, wherever possible, should be to help a child really deal with their anxiety or whatever situation is causing that angst and help them work through that.

K: Right. If we somehow remove them from the stressful situation, it’s not helping them learn to cope. And it could long term really feed their fears instead of eliminating them.

J: And we really want to setup children for long term success. Sometimes they have to learn how to tolerate anxiety and function even when they’re feeling stressed. And the only way to do that is really in the situation that gives them that anxiety. Because that’s how we have to move them through it. So there are many tools that we see being used to teach children to help kind of move through anxiety breathing techniques, physical activity is always great mental games, but so much more.

K: Yeah, but again, it is easier said than done because it’s so difficult to see a child struggle.

J: Oh, absolutely. That is not what we want to see. But it’s a necessary struggle, I think, to help them, like we said, move through. But so that’s then our second tip is to help them build up their confidence while they’re in the midst of that struggle.

K: Right. So we can’t promise things that are out of our control “Hey, don’t worry, it’ll be a good day, nothing bad will happen.” Or “I’m sure you’ll get an A on that test.” We can’t promise those kinds of things, but we can promise that we’re thinking of them, that we believe in them, that we’re confident that they can get through whatever struggle or anxiety they’re dealing with.

J: And confidence can be contagious. So if we as adults are confident, children can also start to become more confident in their own abilities to handle those stress.

K: For sure. And so our third tip ties into this because it’s to avoid, as adults, communicating in a way that would feed their fears.

J: Oh, this is like where I get excited because this kind of taps into some legal stuff here. So we might call that leading questions, and so we really want to avoid those. We might slip into saying things like, “are you feeling anxious about seeing your doctor today?” Well, what if the child was having a perfectly good day, wasn’t feeling anxious until you brought it up, but now I’ve planted that seed that perhaps they should be okay. And in this case, the answer to that question ,are you feeling anxious about seeing your doctor today? Is really just a yes or no. Well, we hope that they say no, but if they answered yes, they may completely shut down and withdraw. And then our attempts to try to follow-up really won’t do much good either.

K: Right. Because they’re shut down at that point.

J: Correct. So compare that to a slightly different way of asking in what we would call an open ended question. Maybe something like, “how are you feeling about going to the doctor today?”

K: Our tone and our body language play into this too. We have to check ourselves. I know that I have to check myself. Are we communicating in a way that makes a child feel like they should be anxious or makes them feel like there is something to be anxious about? Obviously, doing so is not helpful.

J: I mean, I think we have the best of intentions, but we really don’t want to create anxiety where it doesn’t even exist.

K: Right. Okay. So to recap, our three tips are to:
1 – Teach a child to cope with, not completely avoid, anxiety.
2 – Build up a child’s confidence so that they know they are capable of dealing with their anxiety.
3 – Avoid communicating in away that could fuel their fears.

J: Maybe I might add a fourth tip, if helpful, but I think we briefly touched on it, but kind of modeling ways of handling stress and anxiety, because here’s the reality, listeners. Stress is normal. We all have it in our lives. We can’t hide from it. And then juggling way too many things in our lives is becoming the norm. B0ut what we know is that children are sponges, and they’re always watching adults in their lives. And so how we react is so important, because we can also pass or what we call transfer, our own stress or anxieties that we’re just feeling to them without even meaning to do so. But on the positive note, we can pass or transferto them the positive ways that we deal with stress.

K: Exactly. So going back to Brie’s story, her CASA advocated for her to get the help she needed. The initial problem that was brought to court was missing school, but the root problem was really related to her mental health. And so Brie underwent a psych evaluation, which brought to light her severe anxiety. And this led to a team of professionals creating a treatment plan for Brie that included a combination of therapy and medication. And her CASA encouraged her to stay on track with the treatment plan, and her CASA put her in touch with a social worker who also helped her make a plan to meet her educational needs. And as of today, Brie’s mental health is stabilized and she has her GED.

J: I love that. And it was funny when you first started sharing the story, Kristin, I was really hoping that we weren’t going to hear that the adults in Brie’s life were saying things like, “why aren’t you going to school” and “you’re fine.” That’s just not helpful, because she wasn’t fine and what was going on was deep beneath the surface. And in this particular case, I’m so glad that she had this wonderful CASA to speak up for her, to help get the help that she needed to address the trauma that she experienced.

K: And this leads right into our call to action for the week. Listener, please, please remove the phrase “you’re fine” from your vocabulary. On the surface, children struggling with mental health challenges may seem fine, the situation may look fine to you, but they definitely do not feel fine. And they need adults to see them and acknowledge that their struggle is real and then talk to them and help them process their feelings so we can help them walk through it.

J: Yeah, because we all need someone to walk with us when we’re having a difficult time.