Session 1
Understanding Youth with Anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety may appear as a behavioural problem stemming from excessive worry and irrational fears that need to be changed or fixed. However, as you will soon discover in this course, anxiety is a symptom of unmet emotional needs that are most effectively addressed through relationship.

Anxiety is excessive worry about and fear of a threat that may or may not exist in the future. Experiencing fear and anxiety is considered a normal part of life. However, when it is present on a regular basis and for an extended period of time, and it begins to interfere with daily activities and affect a person’s quality of life, anxiety becomes problematic. These problems often begin in childhood, with phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but they can also develop across the lifespan, appearing later in adolescents and adults as social anxiety and panic disorders (Bellamy & Hardy, 2015). An estimated 6.5 percent of youth in British Columbia are diagnosed with anxiety disorders today (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2023).

When a young person experiences anxiety in the form of chronic and excessive fear, worry, avoidance, and other troubling thoughts and behaviours, their development, well-being and overall quality of life can suffer. Most importantly, anxiety can impact the ability of youth in care to receive (or their receptivity to) the care they need from those caring for them.

For Indigenous youth, we must consider historical trauma and the impacts of colonization, which include loss of connection with land and culture, as well as separations from biological parents, as major factors in their overall well-being and sense of self.

The many faces of anxiety

Anxiety has many faces. Anxiety symptoms can take endless forms that can be confusing and easily misinterpreted. However, anxiety generally includes one or more of the following symptoms:

Young people experiencing these symptoms can feel like they have lost control of their bodies, thoughts and emotions, which can be overwhelming for them. As an adult caring for a youth with anxiety, you have much to offer simply by focusing on strengthening the relationship between the two of you. For youth in care, many of these symptoms, if not all of them, are a result of an unmet need for consistent, safe relationships with caring, responsible, warm adults. Anxiety can be explained as a symptom of unmet needs! Therefore, it is only through relationship that the unmet needs fuelling anxiety can finally be met.

Strengthening relationship is the safest and most powerful way to help anxious youth. Beginning to see anxiety as something that can be addressed through relationship puts you in a position to walk alongside youth in safe, indirect ways that are trauma informed and that take into account the youth’s cultural identity and background.

Relationship is the most important source of healing for a young person who has unmet needs and has experienced unwanted changes in their life, which have compromised their ability to feel safe. Relational safety is a bottom-line need for all youth that must be met regardless of where they come from or what their story is.

'It's your path but you don't have to walk it alone.'

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