Anxiety in children is a topic which is very close to my heart at the moment. It's not that my children are particularly anxious at the moment although we've certainly had our issues with anxiety in the past. This time it's the fact that that my wife and I are both scout leaders (she does Joeys and I do cubs) and we both have some anxiety issues within our groups.
It's quite different when it's not your child. When you're outside of the day-to-day life of the family (scouts is mostly once per week). This time, instead of being the parents, we're the "professionals". Being on the other side of the fence is giving us a whole different point of view.
Immediacy of Results
The parents of our anxious children are coming up to us and talking about how "they can't see their children settling" and about how they feel like "maybe they need to take their children out of scouts". We understand their position - after all, we used to be the same (sometimes we still are when it comes to school).
As a leader however, I can see weekly improvements. They're not giant leaps and it will take time but these kids are becoming less anxious every week. Parents expect to see immediate results and feel like they need to give up when they don't get them.
Immediate results don't happen but there's no reason to give up. Those small results are growing each week. Parents of anxious children need to take a step back and let things run their course. If you keep changing your child's activities, then of course you're going to make them more anxious.
Give your Anxious Child Room
Your anxious child needs room to grow and breathe. We find that many children are much more anxious when they know that their parents are watching. Our worst issues with anxiety are those where the child leaves the scout hall and tries to look for their parents in the car park. It's dangerous. I've even heard of children in school, but thankfully, not in my scout group (so far) who chase their parents cars all the way home.
When dropping your anxious child off. Leave them with the group, make sure that they know that you'll be back and then beat a hasty retreat. It's best to do it as soon as your child is dropped off. If the parents stay in the hall, then the child will cling to them constantly instead of participating. Recently, one parent stayed in their car in the car park. Their child knew this and kept making excuses to leave the hall to be with them. "I need to go get a torch", "I need to check if I can eat this", etc.
When my wife and I were on the parents side of the fence, we had similar issues dropping our youngest off at preschool. He'd cry constantly and if we stayed for an hour, he'd cry for an hour. The teachers used to tell us that he settled with five minutes of our leaving. I don't think we believed them but now I know that it's true. In scouts and school, crying is one of those things that may attract bullies. It's best not to put your children in that situation.
Parents, being there for your kids is a nice touch but you're only increasing their anxiety. Out of sight is often out of mind.
Making Allowances for Children with Anxiety
Another issue that parents raise with us is the constant need to make allowances for their children. Perhaps their child won't stand on parade, perhaps they won't join in games, maybe it's the group activities or the noise that cause the anxiety?
As scout leaders, my wife and I nod our heads. Yes, there will need to be some changes to the programme to better suit the anxious kids - but that's ok. We will all benefit.
Then of course, the parents begin to panic again about how they feel that we're having to make allowances and changes for their child. They feel guilty that we're changing our programme or that we can't do the same things we do every year with the other kids.
Why? It's hard to explain but my wife and I really enjoy the differences in our programme. It's boring doing the same things over and over again. The differently-abled children put a whole different spin on things. They make us do different activities (or the same activities differently), we make allowances, little changes and sometimes bigger changes.
We're staying true to scouts and everyone is benefiting from the programme. Sometimes, the benefits are actually due to the changes. If we're doing something differently, as leaders, we're more excited by it. That excitement rubs off on the other kids and everything is better.
Parents; Your kids with anxiety aren't a burden. They're a joy.
Challenges and Resources
Then of course, there's the challenge of helping a child with anxiety issues to better integrate with a group. It's not a challenge in a bad way. It's something that we, as leaders, enjoy.
Recently I contacted our special needs group regarding our most anxious cub. I didn't contact them to complain. I contacted them for ideas. I have to say that our special needs section is brilliant. The main person in special needs sent my email around to the individuals under him and they all responded with ideas. I'm charged and I'm rising to the challenge.
I'm just terrified that the parents will decide that "it's too much work for us" or that their child is "adjusting too slowly" and remove them from scouts.
Seeing Incidents Differently
A year or so ago, we had a cub who was very unruly. He could not keep still and would run constantly. He was very difficult to handle but we were making inroads. One night, we were doing sewing. I knew that it was an activity which wouldn't hold his attention so I gave him other tasks to do. Fortunately for him, those tasks included a lot of opportunties to run around (just not with needles in his hands).
His parents arrived early to pick him up and saw their son doing a lot of running while the others were quietly sitting down sewing. They assumed that their child simply wasn't fitting in and they removed him from cubs immediately. I didn't try to argue the point because sometimes parents will believe what they want to believe regardless of what you tell them. I still feel bad about that moment because he was making so much progress and his parents couldn't see it.
Today, I still have children who need to do different things during scouts. Sometimes they have trouble participating in a game, so I make them the leader of the game. They set up and run the game, teach the rules and help the leaders catch the kids who are "out" but sneak back in.
It troubles me to hear of conversations in our scout car park where the parents tell their children that they "weren't happy with their behaviour at scouts today". Why? They were leaders! It's inspirational.
Overcoming Anxiety on Parade
A post on anxiety in scouts wouldn't be complete without a least a few tips, so here's a selection of feedback I receieved from our special needs group regarding a cub who is a little too anxious to stand on parade and go through the investiture ceremony;
There's a little repetition here but I've left it in because it highlights the key points. buddies, planning, smaller/different ceremonies and just plain acceptance. As parents, sometimes we need to accept that our children will naturally have anxiety issues. We need to determine when to be there for them and when to allow them to grow by themselves.
- Invite the parent to stand on parade next to him
- Give him a special job to do on parade so he focuses on that eg. Could you hold this book for me, because I’m going to need it first thing after parade
- Do parade outside or make it different somehow
- Give him a Parade Buddy, even a sympathetic and low-key leader to playfully team up for support (maybe not next to him but across the circle, more eye contact, more encouragement.
- Get him prepared. Some cubs are excellent when they have time to mentally prepare for events.
- Consider a more private investiture ceremony, maybe a smaller group while on a ramble from the Hall
- Maybe you could try preparing him beforehand by outlining the parade structure and time frame (a diagram might be helpful). Perhaps give him a choice of where he can stand on parade.
- If he has any friends in the pack, perhaps someone from the same school, they could provide "buddying-type" support for him for a few weeks.
- Try to find out from his parents what his fears are and whether he has any sensory issues (eg hates noise, smells, certain colours). Also, ask his parents what are his strengths, eg maths, art, maps.
- His fears may not seem rational but they will be very real for him. Consider delaying his investiture until he feels more ready.
- Failing all else, invest the child in private with his parents.