Children’s anxiety group provides much-needed support for families

Emily’s welcome space for children.

The fallout from last year’s Covid-19 lockdown has been felt far and wide around New Zealand, and especially by Family Works staff.

In late 2020, the team at Family Works Upper Hutt noticed an increase in referrals for children with anxiety. Common issues included children not wanting to go out into the community in case they got sick and not wanting to leave their parents in case something happened to them.

In some cases, children were experiencing severe panic attacks at school, as well as other anxious behaviours.

Family Works Upper Hutt group facilitator and psychology graduate Emily Craigie and then colleague Sarah Ozanne spoke with a child psychiatrist at the Infant Child Adolescent Mental Health Service, which operates as ICAFS in the Hutt Valley, who had also noticed an increase.

“We know that anxiety in a developing brain will impact on the neurological structures and pathways, which can affect people psychologically for the rest of their lives,” says Emily.

New group

Together Emily and Sarah developed an anxiety group just for children, to give them the opportunity to talk about what was bothering them, understand why it was happening and give them some ways to help to deal with it.

They decided to start with a small group of six children aged between nine and 11 years old.

“It took a great deal of courage for them to come to the centre for the first session and when they got here, they were very reserved,” Emily says.

“We used paper windmills to practice breathing techniques, sensory key chains and stress balls which helped them to focus on something so they could voice their feelings and more importantly their worries.

“After the first session the children started trusting us and becoming a bit more confident, toward the end they had become loud, and we had lots of laughter!” Emily says.

Simple resources

“We kept the resources simple to enable the families to make them at home and continue the anxiety relieving techniques.”

The resources developed by the Family Works team include interactive charts and diagrams so children can get the most out of the five-week course.

“The brain diagram helps children understand the chemical reaction that they are having and how it affects them.”

Their sense of autonomy is an important part of the treatment, Emily explains.

The children are given a chart that they can use at home to easily show parents what level of anxiety they are feeling on any given day. They are also given a journal titled SCRAMXIETY that covers each aspect of the programme and provides an opportunity to track their individual journey.

“First off we encourage the children to create and draw their personal ‘anxiety pet’. They’re not always animal based although we have had a cat with octopus’ arms. The pet they draw enables them to express what anxiety is like for them and how they can address it. They know their journey is theirs alone and it’s okay to be different from others in the group.”

By week five the children will have developed their own ways to help recognise and manage their anxiety with the resources provided.

Positive results

The Family Works team has had encouraging feedback from parents who say their children are happier, more social, attending school regularly and sleeping better.

“Parents have commented they are thrilled to have their children back,” says Emily. “One parent told us the teachers at school had noticed a huge improvement in their child’s social skills, they are playing with other kids and getting involved in activities. Another child has gone back to playing sport, he is not worried about anything happening to him when he’s with other kids and his confidence has returned.”

There are very few anxiety programmes available for children outside of those run through the District Health Board at Hutt Hospital. The Family Works initiative is seen as unique and is in demand from other agencies.

“Our group has a waiting list as there is high demand for it, we hope to be able to offer this to the Hutt Valley community ongoing,” says Family Works Upper Hutt manager Shelly Evans “Oranga Tamariki has recently asked about the programme and how they can get children on it as their one has a long waitlist. We have also had enquiries from other agencies about it.”

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