Addressing Anxiety

It seems widely accepted that people who work with children professionally are infinitely better at guiding other people’s kids than their own. Right? As camp directors, coaches, teachers, and counselors, we exude great confidence and foresight when working with other people’s children. We’re steady and even-keeled, professional, and highly effective.

Somehow, we “sages” of child development often manage to lose all our bearings when dealing with our own kids. Why is that? Once my wife and I had children, I came to believe that parenting can quickly devolve into a desperate endeavor since we have so much emotional investment. I could lose my patience easily or give in to whiny behavior, actions I would never take when working with a camper or a player on the youth baseball teams I coached. Maybe it’s just a matter of having enough emotional distance to maintain more objectivity when working with other people’s children that renders us (shall we say?) more competent.

If we accept this premise, then camp directors have an opportunity and even an obligation to use that objectivity, experience, and skills constructively when working with the kids in our camps, and especially when engaging with their parents. This encounter can be intimidating for some directors, and can demand great finesse and balance for those willing to take that leap. It helps to remember that as a camp director, you are a professional and in a position to make a tremendous and positive impact on the families that trust in you enough to send their children to your camp.

An Opportunity To Engage

Here’s a good example of engaging with parents and helping them with their own kids. In the last year or two, I have noticed a substantial uptick in conversations and correspondence with parents who refer to one or more “anxieties” that their child may have. This is a concern:

  1. The pace at which this uptick has occurred has been very rapid.
  2. Behaviors that used to be regarded as relatively common nervousness or even recalcitrance are now being labeled as an “anxiety.” 
  3. The approach many parents take when addressing “anxiety” in their children is often well-intentioned, but counter-productive.

So how can we help parents be more constructive in guiding their kids’ growth through some challenging issues?

If you’re willing to counsel camp parents, I recommend first agreeing on a common definition of the problem they’re addressing. For the issue of anxiety, I would explain that the term “anxiety” has taken on a life of its own, and is casually interchanged for a less severe emotional state, such as “nervousness” or “worry.” Everyone gets nervous, which, while an uncomfortable feeling, can usually be addressed and overcome. Labeling a behavior as an “anxiety” ratchets up the surmised severity of the situation, and may derail an appropriate response. As parents navigate the emotional handicaps of guiding their own kids by attaching the label of “anxiety” (and the associated inference of a medical disorder) to a nervous or recalcitrant behavior, they may legitimize a lighter approach, deflecting that discomfort away from their children rather than guiding them to face it and overcome it.

Sorting Out Semantics

There are legitimate anxieties that afflict kids, sometimes warranting professional treatment. “Anxiety” is defined in Merriam-Webster as “an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear, often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one's capacity to cope with it.” Does this definition really fit what we increasingly hear and read from parents about their kids? Is refusing to eat vegetables truly a food-related anxiety? Is being unwilling to share toys really attachment-object anxiety? Many kids are apprehensive about going to summer camp, and many may have separation anxiety, but perhaps they’re just experiencing a very normal concern about something new to them.

Often what parents need most is a healthy perspective. For instance, we can cast the behavior they label as anxiety in a similar light as, say, a common cold. Most parents would agree that kids who are exposed to viruses at a young age develop antibodies that promote resistance to sickness over the course of their lives. If sheltered from that exposure, a child may avoid getting sick today or the next month, but without those antibodies, he or she is far more likely to experience frequent illnesses as an adult.

The same holds true for behavioral “antibodies.” Children cannot avoid forever situations that cause them to be nervous. Unknown people and unknown situations can cause someone to be nervous, and by virtue of youth and inexperience, kids will encounter many of both. Circumstances like performing at school, or in theater, sports, or social situations can lead a child to worry. Parents can “plow the road” and protect a child from these situations. They might even hold their child’s hand and stay ever by his or her side for comfort and to deflect nervousness. But what if those “antibodies” never develop? 

Identifying With Behaviors

As a camp director, you are in a position to advise parents how to constructively respond to these normal behaviors that truly are a part of growing up. You can recommend   that parents identify with the child. Parents have certainly experienced their share of those uncomfortable feelings. They also know those feelings are normal, and help a child to grow. Being nervous is okay. What’s important is how the child responds to that nervousness. “You believe in her, you have great faith in her, and you’re sure she’s going to do her best and—whether or not she succeeds to her fullest satisfaction—she’s going to tackle it head-on and come out on the other side as a much stronger person.” Parents then have the crucial (and loving) task to get out of the child’s way. That growth will serve the child well into the decades ahead.

We can tell parents to consider the type of person they want their child to be … not next month or even next year, but 30 to 50 years down the road. Do parents want what’s best for the child? Of course they do. More importantly, they want him or her to be robust, capable of absorbing a setback, independent, and resilient.

Perspective can be a difference maker for parents trying their best to raise kids well. Camp directors are in a position to leverage their own experience and objectivity, offering parents that professional vantage point. We can help parents realize their children’s nervousness or “anxiety” is not a problem. It is an opportunity!

Along with his wife, Leslie, Mike Cohen has co-owned and directed Camp Timberlane for Boys in Woodruff, Wis., for 31 years. Reach him at mike@camptimberlane.com.