Supporting teens through school camp anxiety: A parent’s perspective

It’s that time of year again: Tweens and teens are setting off for school camp. And if you have a child with anxiety, the crying, panic, fear, hyperventilating, and resistance will be familiar (not to mention exhausting)!

 

Faced with the real and overwhelming distress that is our child’s anxiety, as a parent, our hearts hit the ground. There is no way we can physically force a teenager to get into a car and go somewhere they are dead set against. Watching our child struggle to breathe, to control nausea, and to deal with some of the other physical effects of anxiety, our first instinct is to want to make it stop. The fastest way would be to reassure them that they don’t have to go to camp; not to worry, it’s fine. But is it the best thing?

As a parent, I want my child to know what she is capable of, to see challenges as potential opportunities, to know that she can get through hard situations and even find enjoyment in them, to know that she can depend on herself and doesn’t always need a best mate next to her, to grow in confidence, to feel proud of herself for feeling the fear and doing it anyway, to realise her talents and potential. To know that feeling this way is more than hard, it’s unfair, painful and horrible but it doesn’t mean she shouldn’t or can’t do something.

This means that when my child experiences anxiety, my heart doesn’t just hit the ground, it sinks into the earth – because there is no easy answer and there is no instant solution. It might mean a sleepless night (or nights) comforting a hyperventilating teen who doesn’t like me much. It will certainly mean a lot of internal self-talk reminding myself that in the end, it is about empowering my child.

 

Helpful strategies

Along the way, I have found some of these strategies helpful:

  • Acknowledging her feelings and how hard it is.
  • Letting her know that some anxiety is normal and understandable, especially when something unexpected has come up, such as friend not going to school camp any more. That I get that and am willing to support her with back rubs, cuddles, buying a favourite treat to take, and so on.
  • Offering support with the physical effects of anxiety. This might mean offering things to smooth an unsettled or constipated tummy (kiwicrush drinks, probiotics, chamomile tea). It might mean supporting her with sleep the night before with company (a pet, sibling, or parent).
  • Talking through the pros and cons, with an emphasis on the pros (getting away from that irritating sibling, catered meals, trying a new activity, getting to know [or observe, as the case may be] others more, not missing out and feeling proud of herself for working through a big challenge). As a parent, you might even say, “Wouldn’t it be so cool if you could be that person who is supportive of a younger kid who doesn’t know anyone or finds the physical activities really hard?” and “There will be quite a few of those kids, and you know how they feel!” Put the pros into perspective: “It’s not jail” and “It is only one night” can help de-escalate those out-of-control thoughts.
  • Negotiating some fair concessions. For example, being prepared to agree to a check-in or pickup halfway through, as long as your child goes and gives it a go for a decent initial period. Follow through on your agreement.
  • An update with other parents you know well might help. If you discover both your children feel the same way, you might be able to team them up.
  • Reminding your child that even though it’s tough, they do have some responsibilities and there will be some natural consequences if they choose not to go at all. For example, saying, “I have paid for you to go and try the activities, and if you choose not to go, you will need to repay me” and/or “The school has subsided your place on the camp, and we will need to find out whether you need to pay them back if you don’t go” and “ If you are not going, we will both need to communicate this to your teacher – especially since your teachers will have worked really hard to organise the camp and are prepared to be away from their own families for you.” Your teen needs to know the realities of the situation, and have empathy for other peoples’ perspectives!
  • Take plenty of time to talk through a thorough plan with your child so that feel confident about tackling any issues that may arise (eg stomach pains, asthma, allergies, someone being unkind, feeling like something is too hard, and so on).
  • Communicating with your child’s teacher and school will be important to ensure they have the right level of support and understanding about camp, and know who they can go to if they need more.
  • Being able to verbally check in with a supportive friend or family member while supporting your child through an episode of active anxiety will make also make a difference. None of us are alone in this!  Find someone who understands.

 

Longer-term help

In the longer term, there are some agencies and activities that might be helpful. Aside from your school counsellor and GP, some options in include:

  • Your local district health board will normally provide free mental health assessment and therapy for 0 -19 year olds in your area for moderate to high needs. They are also likely to have a 24-hour urgent crisis mental health line. You will be able to find the phone number online or request a GP referral.
  • Anxiety New Zealand Trust is a fee-paying service that works with Aucklanders experiencing anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias. They provide workshops and groups including a Friends Resilience group for young people. There is a free 24-hour helpline: Phone 0800 269 4389.
  • A focus on breathing – some families find exploring options such as mindfulness and yoga together helpful. There are classes in many areas or free online options. There are private breathing clinics such as buteykobreathing.nz.
  • Youthline – a free service for teenagers to call, text, or chat online with someone trained to listen. Phone 0800 37 66 33 for 24/7 support, text 234 between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz
  • org.nz also has information about anxiety and a helpline where you can contact a trained counsellor via an email link or text to 4202.
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