According to statistics, approximately 14% of Australians will be affected by an anxiety disorder in any 12 month period http://www.mindframe-media.info/for-media/reporting-mental-illness/facts-and-stats#Snapshot . Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem experienced by young people in Australia http://www.mindframe-media.info/for-media/reporting-mental-illness/facts-and-stats#C&Y . It is evident just by talking to young people and their families that anxiety is on the rise amongst our young people and it’s beginning at a younger age. Anxiety is experienced by many individuals with Autism.
Historically, it has often been said that individuals with Autism lack empathy and that they are not sensitive to the feelings of others. I challenge this – and many within the Autism community both those with Autism and academics such as Dr Simon Baron-Cohen, also challenge this notion. If there is a negative emotion in a room my boys will absorb it immediately. They may not understand what the emotion is or how to manage it, but they certainly experience it. Further, I have noticed that whatever my emotion level is, they tend to meet that level and sometimes go beyond it – I call this the “meet and beat phenomena”. If I am stressed, they also become stressed and often go beyond my level of emotion. This is called mood referral. I think that most children are susceptible to mood referral and as parents and educators of children in this environment where anxiety is on the increase we need to be acutely aware of this.
If we as parents are anxious and stressed, we are creating an environment of anxiety and stress for our children. We know this. As teachers, is we are anxious and stressed, we are also creating an environment of anxiety and stress for our students. We need to become aware of our own moods and emotions, and learn to regulate ourselves. We cannot teach our children to self-regulate if we ourselves are not able to do so.
Teachers are under so much pressure these days. They manage a crowded curriculum; hugely diverse student needs; hugely diverse parent needs; and their own personal situations. In many classrooms I have visited, this stress and anxiety is evident in every fibre of the teacher’s being. Their speech is urgent; they use words phrases like “quickly, get your books ready we have so much to get through this session”; they appear harassed, tired and almost seem emotionally unavailable – often so focused on getting through the work, that they are not plugged in to the kids and where they are at. For parents, it’s the same. We can become so preoccupied about getting from one place to another on time that we disconnect and also communicate our stress to our kids through our manner and person.
Children learn to self-regulate by having an adult co-regulate with them. We co-regulate with our kids by giving them verbal cues and talking them through the process of remaining calm and listening to their bodies. We also need to model good self-regulation strategies. I think that this process of co-regulation is lacking in our schools and in our homes, and I feel that this is why our children struggle to self-regulate well and therefore are more susceptible to things such as anxiety.
When your body experiences anxiety and stress, the body often goes into fight-flight, a natural process in which the body perceives a threat and prepares us for this. For some children, this response may manifest as anger, others may withdraw or retreat and some may present with problem behaviours such as defiance. Anxiety has many different presentations. We need to be aware of this also.
If I’m in a classroom or a home where the adult is anxious and stressed, this impacts upon my ability to learn effectively and to retain information. Anxiety and stress impact upon your working memory; can make you feel physically unwell and exhausted; and can cause restlessness, sleeping difficulties, school refusal and avoidance behaviours. Anxiety is in your DNA – the experiences of those in your family are passed on to you genetically, as yours are to your children. Chronic anxiety and stress can actually change your DNA. This bears thinking about doesn’t it?
So how can we all help to ensure the children are equipped to recognise and manage anxiety and stress?
- We need to recognise and learn to manage our own stress first.
- We need to teach our children the skills they need to identify, communicate and manage their emotions.
- We need to co-regulate with our children, teaching them the language and processes needed to self-regulate.
- We need to provide lots of opportunities for our children to practice the skills they have learnt – role play, real life situations
- We need to access support services where necessary (some of these are listed below) for learning, awareness and help – counsellors, online support programs, apps, organisations.
If we don’t do something to address the problem of rising anxiety amongst our young people, I fear that the impact for them over time will be enormous and potentially tragic. I say this not to be alarmist, but in order to prompt you to action. Each of us need to work hard at our own local level to promote an awareness of anxiety, and to open the doors of communication about this very significant issue.
Below are a number of resources to help you manage anxiety – there are some links to online resources, and there a number of suggested iPad Apps and books. I would encourage you to visit these links and make those around you aware of these fantastic programs and resources.
Interactive online resources:
The Brave Program. https://brave4you.psy.uq.edu.au/
“The Brave Program is an interactive, online program for the prevention and treatment of childhood and adolescent anxiety. It is recommended for children aged 8-17. The programs are free, and provide ways for children and adolescents to better manage their worries. There are also programs for adults.”
MoodGym is a free online resource designed for ages 15-25, but has also been found effective for adults. It is an interactive program consisting of a number of different modules which aim to help young people to identify and overcome problem emotions and develop good coping skills.
eHeadspace is a confidential, free and secure space where young people 12-25 and their family can chat, email or speak on the phone with a qualified youth mental health professional.
Beyond Blue http://www.beyondblue.org.au/
Kids Helpline http://www.kidshelp.com.au/
Positive Penguins – The four positive penguins take you on an interactive journey to help you understand that feelings arise from your thinking and if you challenge your negative thoughts successfully you may be able to see things in a more realistic and even optimistic way.
Fear Shrinker – audio enabled app for children 4-8 who are scared or worried.
Calm Talk – a simple and visual way to help children to self-calm using the “I feel – I need” model and lots of visual supports.
Feel Electric – explores emotions, facial features, stories about emotions, mood journal, games to teach emotional vocabulary
Emotion Detective – understanding body language, identifying emotion of a conversation and people in context, emotional vocabulary
Apps – Books:
“Wince – Don’t feed the worry bug” – Wince overcomes his worries and banishes the Worry Bug. https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/wince-dont-feed-worrybug-full/id575817080?mt=8
“The Kissing Hand” (separation anxiety, school anxiety) https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/the-kissing-hand/id582477486?mt=8
“Bye Bye Butterflies” – This solution-focused children’s book teaches seven strategies for self-regulation and stress management. The Home practice exercises provide an opportunity for creative expression, self-awareness, and self-care. The audio Relaxation exercises offer guided meditations for calming the body and the mind.