A young person, call her Jane, in the high school youth class is sitting scrunched up in the corner of the room on the couch, not interacting with anyone else while the rest of the church’s youth group is talking excitedly about their upcoming trip to the youth convention. Jane looks down at her crossed arms, hair shading her eyes, and her leg jiggles up and down rapidly.
The youth group leader tries to draw Jane into the discussion, but Jane seems unwilling to talk and only responds with one-word answers to direct questions. Jane has not yet turned in the registration forms and fee for the convention, and because the deadline is drawing near, the youth group leader approaches Jane after class about the forms.
Jane blurts out angrily, “I’m not going to Convention! I hate it!!” Then she turns and storms out. Later, after calling Jane’s parents to talk with them about the incident, Jane’s mother reveals confidentially that Jane has recently been having difficulty with anxiety and anxiety attacks. Jane’s mother thinks that Jane is afraid to go away on the convention trip.
How should the youth group leader respond?
Anxiety and anxiety attacks can be debilitating to the person who is experiencing them. Fear of the loss of control over one’s own emotions, mind and body can overwhelm. Panic attacks, sudden irrational fear, hyperventilating, a racing heartbeat, even uncontrollable shaking, are all possible symptoms of anxiety.
Children experiencing anxiety will "avoid situations or things that they fear, or endure them with anxious feelings, which can manifest as crying, tantrums, clinging, avoidance, headaches, and stomachaches. Unlike adults, children do not usually recognize that their fear is irrational" (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Ask yourself if behavior that looks like stubborn refusal or a discipline problem may be masking anxiety.
How can congregations be helpful and supportive of people with anxiety issues?
- Ask: How can I/we be helpful to you?
--When you are feeling anxious
--If you are having an anxiety attack
- Encourage the person to seek professional help from a medical doctor or mental health professional, if they have not already. Offer to help make the appointment or to go along the first time.
- Listen, but don’t “try to fix it.”
- Allow time and space as needed.
--Permission to physically leave a group setting or class
--Permission to not attend services or meetings as needed
- Check in periodically with
--A phone call
--A brief conversation at church
--An offer to meet for coffee and conversation
--Ask about life in general. Are they able to manage daily living and work?