Helping Youth Cope with Anxiety

Written by Larry Nagengast

Struggling in school, withdrawing from friends, worrying about family issues – these are all signs of a child trying to cope with anxiety.

These situations are not easy for a parent to handle. And, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in six U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.

Jewish Family Services of Delaware (JFS) offers both group and individual programs designed to help children and the adults close to them learn how to manage anxiety issues.

Registration is now under way for a 10-session youth support group, for ages 9-14, that will meet weekly, starting June 6, at the JFS office in suburban Wilmington. The summer program is similar to support groups that JFS arranges throughout the school year at schools and community centers, according to Michael Angelo, the organization’s director of clinical services.

The group programs are now starting their third year, and Angelo says he is pleased by the improvements he has observed in the participants’ confidence and self-awareness.

“When we get the children together, they realize they are not alone, that they are not the only one, that others are telling similar stories,” he says. “Hearing from others normalizes the process and gets them out of their shells.”

Participants know that everything that is discussed in the support group setting is confidential, “what is said in the room stays in the room,” Angelo says.

In some situations, parents and counselors recognize that a child would benefit from one-on-one therapy beyond what the support group offers.

Andrew, a parent from Wilmington, described how his son Henry, who recently completed fifth grade, has been helped by group and individual therapy. Henry was in second grade when Andrew and his wife decided to end their marriage. The family’s issues confused and disturbed Henry, who would overwork himself, become ill, struggle in school and question his role in the family.

“His self-esteem is now so much better. As a parent I don’t worry as much. I think Henry can take a situation and handle it,” Andrew said.

Henry agrees. The group sessions he attended were “fun,” he said, and individual therapy has greatly improved his outlook. “I used to throw up a lot when things would go wrong. Now I rarely think about bad stuff, like family problems. I feel a lot better.”

He says his grades in school have improved and he now finds it easier to concentrate.

“Henry’s self-confidence is what I’m most happy about,” Andrew says. “He handled the divorce really well. He understands that Mom and Dad are happy not being married. He now has a better idea of who we are, and who he is.”

Andrew and Nina, his ex-wife, have also learned more about anxiety through a JFS program for parents and guardians called SPACE, for Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood. This program, Angelo says, allows parents to address issues without their children present and to learn from the experiences of other adults in similar situations.

Children manifest anxiety in different ways, Angelo says. In the elementary grades, signs include not liking to socialize, a fear of speaking aloud in class, difficulty making friends and tiredness from not sleeping. In middle and high school, children may engage in conflict with their peer groups and families, have difficulty with schoolwork, or not feel safe in their neighborhood or with their family.

As children grow older, Angelo says, anxiety does not typically morph into violence toward others, but it can lead to substance abuse – using alcohol and drugs as forms of self-medication, as well as difficulty in life transitions such as attending college and seeking employment.

JFS youth anxiety group programs will resume at about a dozen schools and community centers throughout the state at the start of the new school year. Programs are offered at all grade levels. Parents often learn about the programs on their own or through friends, and sometimes school counselors or therapists recommend that a child participate, Angelo says.

There is a fee for individual therapy, but financial assistance is often available for the uninsured or underinsured.