I was one of the lucky ones. Ever since I was in grade 6 I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I vividly remember watching what we used to refer to as a “Sunday night social worker movie” that year. The storyline was about some children who were living in an unsafe home and needed to be placed in foster care. This “made for tv movie” of course depicted the social worker as a hero/saviour - a story line that would now have me rolling my eyes at the very least. At that impressionable age however, I was clearly moved. I told my mom that that was what I was going to do when I got older, replacing my previous fantasy of being a veterinarian. That year I did my speech at school on child abuse and my passion never faded.
I didn’t become a social worker. While I was in university, I heard about a new field that at the time was called Child Care Work. This area of study was much more focused on children and youth than social work. It was a perfect fit for me. Now referred to as Child and Youth Care practice, it is a profession that has changed greatly since its early days and is a vocation that I am truly proud of and which has always been my calling.
Later in my career after working in children’s residential programs and after providing family counselling, I began facilitating children’s groups and groups for parents. This was and continues to be a great fit for me – like a hand in a glove! While working with numerous children, youth and their families over the years in various roles at a Children's Mental Health Centre in the GTA and doing collaborative community work with school boards and partnering agencies, I discovered a common thread – anxiety. Not only was anxiety prevalent in folks of all ages that we were wanting to support, but it was also common among helping professionals.
Okay folks – time to remove the stigma from this! Feelings and experiences of anxiety have just become common place – period – whoever you are. What is important to keep an eye on however, is the degree to which it is disrupting your life. It is one of the top reasons for referrals at children’s mental health agencies despite often being overlooked by diagnosticians. But this is not the end of the story.
As anxiety has become more and more widespread, it also became a huge area of interest for me. It made me wonder, who doesn’t feel anxious these days and what’s their secret to managing it? As I began learning more about neurodevelopment, the mind-body connection and the power of relationships, answers started to emerge. As a result, I also began training helping professionals about understanding anxiety in those they are supporting but also to be able to recognise how it impacts them personally in their practice.
What has also become clear more recently, is that the anxiety epidemic seems to be getting worse. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Harari (2018) asks “how can we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformation and radical uncertainties (p. 259)?” Adolescence, by nature is a time of uncertainty but factor in the climate crisis, threat of nuclear war and rapid changes in technology - including AI and biotechnology, we can speculate as to why young people are more worried about their futures than ever before. More on this in my next blog along with some suggestions to help parents and caregivers support their children in becoming more resilient and able to cope with distress.
I know. As readers, you are probably thinking – “oh, come on, give us at least one tip now.” If I had to choose the best one because of the limited space in this blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that everyone should learn to focus on their breathing. I know this sounds cliché and it’s not a new one - but it is a good one. It’s foundational – the best place to start. Why? First, because you always have your breath with you in any situation. Second, because we know that things like breathing and heart rate are connected to our Autonomic Nervous Systems (ANS), which become activated when our brains sense danger, consciously or unconsciously. When this happens, we feel uncomfortable in our bodies. The trick however, is finding ways to practice deep breathing and breathing awareness that is age-appropriate and suited to you. For example, young children can be directed to blow at a pinwheel making it move fast and then slow. They can blow bubbles. They can also use belly buddies - small toys placed on their tummies while they are laying on their backs taking deep breaths. The idea behind this is that they can observe their breathing by watching their bellies and their belly buddies going up and down making sure that they don’t fall off. Ask them to describe what is happening. I guarantee you that they will not be focusing on whatever they were worrying about while you are doing this with them. More importantly, they will be learning body awareness which is crucial these days. If we learn to listen to our bodies, it will tell us whatever we need to know about regulating our emotions. Teens and adults can do something similar by simply putting one hand on their belly and one on their chest. Again, they can observe and describe to themselves what they are seeing and feeling. What I am describing are actually known as mindfulness activities - focusing on one thing at a time in each moment with full attention and without judgement. When you get distracted, and you will, without judging yourself, just bring your attention back to your breathing. Judging ourselves makes us worry more and is a waste of energy.
Learning to observe and notice things about ourselves is a very important step towards self-awareness and self-confidence and ultimately, resilience. A lot of anxiety, for adults, youth and children can be managed when we understand how it happens. Current research tells us that we can learn to be in control of it rather than allowing it to hijack us. I also know this from personal and professional experience. More on this too in future blogs.
I will be offering a workshop for parents/caregivers of children and youth who experience anxiety entitled Landscapes of Anxiety: Meeting Your Child Beyond a Diagnosis. It will be held in Toronto on September 21, 2019. This workshop can help parents in understanding anxiety, their child’s and their own. It can also be useful for helping professionals.
For more information and to register, please go to the events page of my website: www.dbertazzon.com
In the mean time, consider this:
“In fact, research shows that merely assigning a name or label to what we feel literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere.” ― Daniel J. Siegel, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive