Supporting the Anxious Child

Strategies and resources to help anxious children find social success
By Kari Dunn Buron

As a teacher I have spent most of my career seeking new and innovative ways to support children with intense anxiety. Kids living with high levels of anxiety often have a hard time coping with things that other kids may shrug off as no big deal, or not notice in the first place. Anxious kids often get stressed out by socially frustrating situations, feel an ultrasensitivity to the environment, or have seemingly unreasonable fears. Anxiety of this sort can lead to tantrum-like behavior including screaming, rude language, throwing things, or even hitting another person. Possibly more than any other issue, this type of loss of emotional control can negatively affect a child’s success with all relationships.

Reward and punishment: the wrong approach

This is not an issue easily solved through the simplistic behavioral systems of reward and punishment typically used in the school setting. A sticker system—or other incentive programs—assumes the child would control his behavior if he just wanted to badly enough. Anxiety is debilitating for all humans, kids included. When big emotions happen, they hijack the thinking part of your brain, the part you need to make good decisions so you earn that sticker or negotiate a difficult social interaction and stay out of trouble.

For a typical adult, excessive worrying, anxiety, and stress might be approached with recommendations for exercise, relaxation, support groups, and possibly medication. When children suffer from similar issues we often blame them for their own lack of control. There might be a jump to try medication, but there is rarely a well-thought-out program of relaxation, exercise, or social support.

Friendships: difficult, but essential

Many of the behaviorally-challenged children I’ve worked with at school have had difficulty making and keeping friends. Friendships are essential to healthy emotional development—if a child exhibits socially isolating behavior, adults need to take notice. Without support, social isolation tends to get worse as the years go on. The loneliness that comes from a lack of friendship is believed to be as great a risk factor for disease as smoking! Having even one good friend can increase a child’s resilience to difficult social experiences. A social network can help a child become more tolerant of different ideas and more flexible in their ability to solve problems.

Helping a child make and keep friends is no easy task if the child lacks the social savvy and awareness needed to get along with others, compromise, or even enjoy another person’s company. Supporting such a child goes beyond simply learning social skills and includes helping the child experience positive social relationships.

Losing emotional control is embarrassing and scary for everyone. Children who have tantrums after the age of five are usually very sensitive to the criticism of others. These kids did not start their educational careers intending to distance themselves from teachers and peers—it is more likely that they started out with fewer emotional control skills. Teachers should attend to social skill development with as much or more attention as is paid to other cognitive skills like reading or math.

Canine therapy

While researching options for relaxation and friendship-making programs to use in school, I came across some pretty compelling articles about canine therapy. Not only did I find articles about dogs that could smell cancer and dogs that could sense an oncoming seizure, I also found one about how dogs could help highly anxious children relax. I found another article that suggested that the presence of a dog in the home increased the amount of time family members spent together, decreasing social isolation within the family.

About this time, my husband gave me a Labrador Retriever puppy for my birthday. We named her Clare and almost immediately got started on a journey of using canine therapy to support children across the autism spectrum.

Clare and I were trained as a service dog team, certified to work with highly anxious children in both school and camp environments. I was overwhelmed by the positive reception Clare received from everyone from children with autism to teachers and peers. She seemed to have a calming effect on anyone she came in contact with. I also noticed that typical children wanted more and more to hang out with my students with autism. They could take Clare for a walk together, play games with Clare in the gym, or sit and read books with Clare.

Camp Discovery

I discovered that Clare had a natural ability to include everyone in activities. She knew how to share, and I found that isolated children were more willing to share their materials, space, and time with others when Clare was a part of the group. Nowhere was this more obvious than when we attended Camp Discovery held at Courage North, in northern Minnesota.

The campers at Camp Discovery have Asperger’s syndrome and related social disorders. The goal of the camp is for campers to establish meaningful friendships. Addressing social anxieties and including relaxation training is a big part of Camp Discovery’s success. Most of the campers have high levels of anxiety and stress and struggle with finding friends. Clare’s role was to help highly anxious campers remain calm when facing frustration, to help campers regain emotional control when things fell apart, and to encourage social interaction between campers. The experiences I had with Clare both at school and camp inspired the story of Adalyn and Clare.

Adalyn’s Clare

Adalyn’s Clare is an early chapter book about a highly anxious 4th grader who is very smart but has tremendous social anxiety and has not made any friends. Clare is a social therapy dog assigned to Adalyn to help her relax in school and hopefully find some friends. Adalyn’s social anxiety, frustration with people, and her love of science and animals hopefully make her a fun and interesting character for all children. My hope is that Adalyn’s story can put a face on anxiety and explosive behavior, allowing a young reader to gain some understanding of how such problems go beyond the scope of simply “bad behavior.”

I also hope the book shows any teachers, librarians, or administrators the logic of exploring alternatives to simple school suspension in response to a student who displays aggressive or scary behavior.

Although I do not give Adalyn a “label” in the story, she clearly exhibits many challenges present in Asperger’s syndrome and the character was actually based on four different girls I personally know with Asperger syndrome. Clare’s character is based on the “real” Clare including many of her personality quirks.

This book introduces a sense of humanity and fun to the very real and often scary issue of social anxiety and explosive behavior in school. I believe both children with anxiety and children without can learn from and relate to the characters.

 

Kari Dunn Buron taught K-12 students on the autism spectrum for over 30 years. She is the co-author of The Incredible 5-Point Scale, and the author of When My Worries Get Too Big, A 5 Could Make Me Lose Control and A 5 is Against the Law! You can find out more about Kari and about Adalyn’s Clare at 5pointscale.com.