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Don’t Let Anxiety — the ‘Cult Leader’ — Run Your Child’s Life

As the school counsellor of Bialik’s Viewmount Branch, my role has certainly evolved over the past four years. Without a doubt, it has become increasingly focused on supporting anxious students and consulting with their parents who, at times, might be feeling a little anxious themselves. 

My new normal is not at all surprising. It is well documented that mental health issues in children and adolescents are on the rise, with more kids struggling with anxiety and depression than ever before. While it is true that there has never been more information and support available to families, it can often be challenging to decipher and navigate. Many parents find it difficult to recognize anxiety in their children, know how to help them, and know when to seek professional support. 

Anxiety gets a lot of negative press, but it isn’t always a bad thing. From an evolutionary perspective, humans are wired to experience stress and worry. Stress is both functional and necessary for survival and without it, we would not be able to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Stress guides us to look both ways before crossing the street, to put in extra effort before a big test, and to visit the doctor when we are feeling sick. 

While everyone experiences stress and worry, it can become problematic when our brains can’t tell the difference between real and imagined danger. When worry “takes charge” of our families’ lives, forcing us into patterns of rigid rules just so that we can function on a daily basis, this may indicate that we require intervention and support to deal with it. 

For the past three years, I have been incredibly fortunate to participate in clinical training with  world-renowned anxiety expert, Lynn Lyons. Lynn treats anxiety using a skills-based approach that focuses on shifting children’s relationship with anxiety, so they can learn how to react and respond to their anxiety in more productive and functional ways. If I have ever had the privilege of working with you or your child, you have likely heard me talk about Lynn’s model.  Whether your child suffers from occasional stress or anxiety or has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, this model can be helpful to you and your family and I’d like to share with you a brief outline of how it works.

Lynn refers to anxiety as a “cult leader” that demands both comfort and certainty at all times. The cult leader (anxiety) can be very bossy. He tells children not to go to school because they might throw up, not to ride the school bus because there might be an accident, or not go to on the class trip because they might feel homesick. As long as we continue to do what the cult leader demands, we, as parents and educators, can avoid our children’s unpleasant symptoms of anxiety, such as the tantrums, anger, school refusal, nausea, stomach aches and panic attacks. Unfortunately, temporarily eliminating these symptoms by avoiding anxiety-provoking situations does not treat the anxiety; it only exacerbates it and allows the cult leader to become increasingly more controlling and demanding. 

Short-term, band-aid solutions only work until the next anxiety-provoking situation arises. When children are not equipped to handle discomfort and uncertainty, they avoid stepping into situations that make them feel anxious and do not develop the coping skills they need to be successful. They also begin to rely exclusively on external reassurance from caregivers and struggle to develop the critical skills of self-regulation, problem-solving, resilience and autonomy. Lynn’s model tackles this problem head on, as children are taught the skills to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty, while boldly stepping into predictably anxiety-provoking situations. 

Lynn Lyons’ model does not focus on trying to find the “root cause” of a child’s anxiety or worry. Rather, she treats anxiety by focusing on the process of worrying (how kids worry), rather than the content of the worry (what in particular the child is worrying about and why). This means that for example, the reason that a child is afraid of dogs is not as important as how their worry prevents them from going to parks or visiting friends who have dogs. 

Anxiety is not a permanent condition. We teach our students that anxiety and worry are a normal part of growing and learning. By interrupting and changing the way they think about, and respond to worry, we can begin to shift their relationship with it. Instead of trying to eliminate each worried thought, we empower kids to handle worry when it inevitably shows up throughout their lives. 

While Lynn’s approach does not eliminate anxiety or worry, it empowers students to make mistakes, manage worry, and handle anxiety-provoking situations. Her treatment model is extremely valuable in teaching children how to self-regulate when they feel anxious and in promoting flexibility, problem-solving and the development of autonomy. 

In the space of this blog, I’ve briefly explained a few of the concepts that make Lynn’s model so unique and effective in helping anxious children and their families. It’s a model that Bialik has embraced and one that can really shift the experience of families with anxious kids. If you have any questions or would like to know more, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me. 

To learn more directly from Lynn, you can check out the following links: 

Can Mr. Rogers Save Us All? Creating More Family Connection & Joy”

Decreasing Anxiety: How to Talk to Your Anxious Child”  

“Helping Children with Anxiety: Lynn Lyons Talks to Kids”

Laura Mincer, B.A., M.S.W., RSW 
School Counsellor