Anxious about anxiety? Lessons from the front line

20 August 2021

Anxious about anxiety? Lessons from the front line

20 August 2021

Childhood anxiety impacts more families than you might realise – many of which suffer in silence. In this article, Hartford College’s Headmaster, James Burfitt, draws on his extensive experience working with anxious children and their parents. It can be a tough journey but not one that has to be navigated alone…

Vegemite advertisements are famous for featuring “Happy little vegemites” tucking into the magic Australian sandwich spread – if that stuff could evoke such joy in children, bring it on! But for some parents, the vegemite-stained child happily skipping into school is a distant fantasy. For them, the school run often involves a distressed, hysterical kid traumatized by the thought of walking through the gates. The villain in this nightmare? Anxiety.

A quick Google search reveals that a little under 7% of kids suffer from anxiety, that is around two children in a standard primary classroom, and puts anxiety second after ADHD in terms of children’s mental health issues – the reach is likely further than diagnosed clinical anxiety statistics can tell us.

It’s also a condition that impacts more than just the primary sufferer. A few years ago, I worked closely with a student who suffered terribly from this condition, and the impact was felt by him and his entire family for years. Leaving the home to go to large and noisy gatherings whether a classroom or a swimming carnival was a trial. Panic attacks, retreats from standard activities and an abiding sense of despair wracked the family, but they live in hope.

After what has seemed like an eternity, huge progress has been made. Changing a number of key factors in the child’s life, including a new school environment, has made a world of difference.  This progress has been achieved at a cost, but the lessons learned have thrown up a treasure trove of effective measures to mitigate the impact.

It’s important to recognize that anxiety is a fact of life. In fact, we need anxiety to put us on edge as a survival response but it’s important to remember that “anxiety is on the bus, it just can’t be the driver.”

Undiagnosed, untreated, and poor understanding of anxiety can lead to intense suffering. I remember years ago when understanding of anxiety was minimal, one desperate mother asked a colleague to physically restrain her primary school-aged son so she could leave with her younger children in the car. The situation was distressing, the child was distraught, the teacher totally compromised in relation to child protection and the mother close to broken. I still think back to what might have been had we been upskilled to deal properly with the scenario. Thankfully, it would happen very differently today.

The best advice I’ve heard from those who have done the hard yards with anxious kids is to move quickly to get help. A GP is a great place to start, as are resources online – Beyond Blue and WayAhead among others.

After diagnosis comes treatment and support. My experience mentoring the families of kids with anxiety was a masterclass in how to move in this difficult world. Once an appropriate therapist is found, there comes the search for the correct therapy and sometimes medication. And life doesn’t stop. While navigating treatment, the day-to-day rolls on and the real challenge is the daily grind of navigating life and anxiety side by side.

The carers of the anxious kid need support and lots of it. Validation and a sense that their struggle is understood is vital. The struggle is made harder when they are told they are reacting incorrectly – that perhaps as first-time parents, they’re overthinking the issue. The carer’s feelings need to be recognised – validate that the battle is tough, that yes, sometimes it sucks.

The same message has to be conveyed to the suffering child. That their struggle is a struggle and understanding that helps. I recall a boy who was battling with anxiety and depression years ago when schools were really just coming to terms with these things returning to school full of praise for his counsellor who had simply acknowledged his struggle. He told me, “He must have had this sir. He just gets it.”

And when the swimming carnival arrives, and the dread begins to get a grip on the child? Decisions need to be made and arriving at the right one requires the wisdom of Solomon. Fears of “giving in”, or “going in too hard”, on the other hand, colour the process. The concept of gradual exposure is a lifesaver in situations like these. Professional help can be sought to guide the parent in this tricky process.

My experience of parents who successfully confront such challenges is that they are the first to admit it is a process and getting it right is a goal not a given. They also come out of the journey with a self-knowledge and humility that is impressive, but hard-earned.

As one parent summed it up:

“We know we have to confront crazy stuff that happens in our home, that we are often manipulated and that our son’s condition impacts on the whole family, some of whom live with resentment.

It’s been hard, it sucks but people do come out the end of this and they can manage.

And we’re still alive.”