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Anxiety in Cub Scouting (Some things we'd like to tell parents)

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 - but we keep things fun nevertheless.

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 opportunities 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 received from our special needs group regarding a cub who is a little too anxious to stand on parade and go through the investiture ceremony;

  1. Invite the parent to stand on parade next to him

  2. 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

  3. Do parade outside or make it different somehow

  4. 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.

  5. Get him prepared. Some cubs are excellent when they have time to mentally prepare for events.

  6. Consider a more private investiture ceremony, maybe a smaller group while on a ramble from the Hall

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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. 

It also highlights the way that special needs teams in scouts come together to reduce the difficulties that special needs kids have in scouts. 

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.

This post was part of  "Best of the Best" Series 6: Anxiety and Stress.


Anonymous said…
Sounds more like the parents have 'anxiety', rather than the kids....Ha! Ive learnt to relax a bit with my girls, they might have aspergers but they 'wont break' so to are way more resiliant than we 'helicopter parents' might think!
B1L said…
This is a great post! I am finding that when my son is stressed out, I get really anxious myself. It's good to be reminded to take a step back and relax. Often, I worry that my son is being a big burden on the leaders/teachers, so I end up reacting to that instead of seeing the bigger picture.
Unknown said…
We tried Scouts for 3 years, and my son "loved" it, but I eventually pulled him out.
1) I couldn't handle the stress of it anymore. I was breaking down into tears every week. (I know, my problem not his, but...)
2) We had issues with another child, and the parent of another child, who seemed to thrive on discretely 'poking' at my son until he'd have a meltdown.
The final straw was when a woman whom I'd known for 3 years and thought of as a friend, and happens to be the mother of the child-poker, said to me, "I just don't know how you do it. I couldn't." This mother also happens to have an aspie and another child with ODD.
I had to conclude that Scouts didn't give my son an opportunity to shine and that perhaps I was just setting him up to fail each week. If she didn't know who my son really was after 3 years, then she was never going to.
I was heartbroken to drop out of Scouts.. I think that it can be a great asset and teach great things as we shape our boys into men, but I just had to conclude that this was not a good fit for us.
Anonymous said…
I dont really understand where all this stress and anxiety is coming girls (aspergers) participate in mainstream school, swimming lessons and dance lessons. They go to school friends parties and have playdates and do all the typical things kids do. We figure they have as much right to be there as anyone else - some people are going to love them, others wont like them, much the same as anyone else in society. A question for those out there: has anyone REALLY, truthfully EVER met a 'typical' child? I havent, I think all kids have their ('special') individual needs, and no child is always perfectly behaved and super-social. Relax parents, theyll be ok!!
sewa mobil said…
Nice article, thanks for the information.
As the parent of an Aspie Webelos II, I can so relate... I have loved watching him grow through scouting into an amazing independent young man. Tomorrow night he leaves for an overnight camping trip with his new Boy Scout troop~ his first overnight without me :) He's going to have a blast! At first he was so excited, then decided I should go too... but I stuck to my guns~ he needs to go hang with the guys.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing your experience here Gavin. My 8yo daughter (Asperger's, anxiety) has been trying out a few sessions of scouts. It has been okay in some respects but her anxiety shows itself as angry outbursts which has given the other kids negative impressions of her. For the time being I have been waiting outside the scout hall (this was discussed with the scout leaders as my daughter may do a runner and try to go home). The leader so far seems very good and inclusive but the second leader is a miserable sort and the complete opposite of what encouragement looks like.

I am finding it very difficult seeing and hearing my daughter's outbursts which also involve her being rude to the leaders and oppositional, though when she's calm she is kind and generous. Frankly, it hurts like hell to see the other kids reactions to her. We see a psychologist who is piecing together some strategies specific to Scouts, but after the latest Scouts session where my daughter just unloaded angrily on other kids (my daughter is always misinterpreting words and actions in a way which makes her believe she is being the victim of something), I am considering pulling her out, and going back in the future when she's got a better handle on managing her anxiety.

However, I also see the other side of the coin where I see the benefit in keeping her there and hoping that the good leader can provide a supportive environment and work with us. My daughter's psychologist thinks this is a great opportunity for my daughter to deal with her anxiety, with supportive framework in place of course however she is also supportive of our decision should we choose to withdraw our daughter.

All I can say as the parent is that it's really, really difficult seeing your child in that position. I honestly don't know whether continuing Scouts will benefit my daughter because for her there will be a bit of 'tough love' as well as that sense of shame when she thinks about her outbursts (though she deals with her shame/remorse by more angry "I don't care!" outbursts). I honestly can't decide whether sending her is detrimental or do we stick with it, look at all the positives and hope that one day it will just get better.

I can tell you that for now, watching her struggling (and dealing with it the way she does, which makes the other kids not like her) is really difficult (and if I'm not physically there outside the hall then I hear about it anyway so it would be the same if she was dropped off). We do work with my daughter to go over rules, expectations, coping strategies etc etc but in the heat of the moment where she's highly anxious, none of that is on her radar.

Maybe it will get better with time but this is where I don't know which direction to go in: do we withdraw for now, build her coping skills up more then rejoin. Or do we keep on going, knowing that she will have outbursts like this every session and essentially putting her in the position where she will have challenging moments. That's where my parental guilt comes in and I wonder why on earth I would want to put her in that position for now :(
Anonymous said…
hi Gavin and readers, just a followup to my big comment up there about my 8yo daughter trying Scouts-- well we decided to stick with it, despite how hard it was (mostly for me!) I had done more prep work with my daughter with a poster chart of expected behaviours for Scouts and some calm-down measures we discussed with the leader. I also dropped my daughter off (though I was around the corner without her knowing as I still had to be closeby just in case). Well wouldn't you know it, from that session on she improved dramatically. It also helped that she and another girl play well together and are often paired up. I'm so happy now a few months down the track as my daughter loves Scouts, has zero anger outbursts there now that she knows what is expected of her as a Scout. It is a complete turnaround from the first month. I was so miserable back then, driving home barely able to see as I was crying so much from seeing how anxious my daughter was and her outbursts towards the others and how they avoided her. Of course now those same girls invite her to join games and wave hello to her. In hindsight, yes I do believe I was making it more about my own anxiety than my daughter's, though I do think we were right to consider perhaps she just wasn't ready. But essentially, once I backed off and trusted in my daughter, she did great. Another thing is that parents of Aspie/anxious kids often have anxiety themselves and/or depression, so when you see your child melting down all the time so unhappy then yes it is often easier for the parent's mental health to avoid exposing the child to that situation. All I can say is that I'm glad I toughed it out as my daughter is so happy at Scouts, and I'm feeling loads better too. I have no problem leaving her there now.

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