A specialist in dealing with anxiety issues for more than 30 years, social worker, Kathy Roberts’ role is to create a connection with kids and their families and to help them solve problems in their daily life. As she explains: “My goal is not to make their anxiety go away, but to give them the tools to manage it.”
For more than 30 years, Kathy has worked in the field of mental health with children, youth and families as far afield as Yellowknife and China. She currently works at London Health Sciences Centre in the pediatric emergency ward and the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic.
Kathy became the first social worker to join Sunshine’s medical team on a Sunshine DreamLift. She was part of the 63rd DreamLift from London to Walt Disney World in April 2018 and shares some tips for helping a child cope with anxiety:
LISTEN: Kids often avoid talking about how they feel, because they are worried others won’t understand. Listen and validate the child’s feelings. Be fully present with them in their experience. Show them they are not alone.
TALK IT THROUGH: Help guide them through and figure it out. Kathy encourages kids to observe their own thoughts: “It’s like a triangle: What you think affects what you feel…and do. Here is the thought you have. Let’s change that thought. Your behavior then changes. It’s all inter-related. Kids get that!”
In preparing for a new experience like a Sunshine DreamLift, Kathy helps the child think things through. Together, they talk through what might happen if a child’s fear came true, and how they would handle it. Having a plan reduces the uncertainty in a healthy, effective way. “Okay, this is what we are going to do – we’ve got it covered.”
Whatever the source of anxiety - being separated from a parent for the first time, being unsure about things like using a bathroom on their own, or needing reassurance that someone who really understands the child’s unique medical needs will be there to help – it is important to talk it through with the child and problem-solve together.
USE RELAXATION TECHNIQUES: Kathy suggests strategies to calm the brain down - breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, even brightly coloured fidget toys. “Something tactile helps distract the brain when it is in a heightened mode. It engages the calming part of the brain.”
THE HUMAN CONNECTION: More than anything else, kids need safety, love and affection. All it takes is one person. It could be a teacher, youth worker, a social worker, or a volunteer. This person can be a lifeline for a child.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE: Kathy is a big believer in teamwork. “We can’t do this work alone. It takes a village, and we each have a piece of that.”
A FAMILY-BASED APPROACH: Kathy was impressed to see how Sunshine looks at that whole family. “The child is part of a whole family system.” Looking around at the airport, prior to departure, she saw a lot of parents who were “happy but a little fearful too.” It is important to support the parents as well as the child, and to give them coping strategies.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRYING NEW THINGS:
“It’s hard with a child with anxiety,” says Kathy. “I tell parents it’s okay to put the bumper pads up, but they don’t have to be so tight. As long as the child is safe and secure and loved, we can give them tools. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Break it down. Have them work through it. Are they angry? Let’s figure out how to get the anger out. Do they have an uncomfortable feeling? They can take charge of it. They can be bigger than it, and work through it.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF INDEPENDENCE:
As Kathy explains, “Almost every parent, when they first receive the news that their child has a disability, wonders, ‘How is my child going to be an independent person as an adult?’, and that remains a constant source of anxiety throughout that parent’s life.”
“An opportunity like a Sunshine DreamLift is a stepping stone for that child to have independence in their life. When an anxious child returns home from the Sunshine DreamLift, they are on Cloud Nine. Home is still home for them, but their worldview has shifted.”
“Witnessing their child going on that Sunshine DreamLift and having a successful experience is huge for the parent as well as for the child. It’s a big shift - for the whole family.”