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Brou ght to yo u by M arkha m Stou ffvi lle H ospital Fou n datio n
No more worries
Dealing with kids’ mental health
at Markham Stouffville Hospital
hildhood is often thought
of as an idyllic time
without a worry or care in
the world. But the reality
is not as rosy.
According to the Canadian
Mental Health Association, it is
estimated that 10 to 20 per cent
of Canadian youth are affected by
mental illness or disorder, of which
anxiety is one of the most common.
Anxious children often
experience a sense of unease
or feelings of being threatened.
Anxiety may cause children to
complain of frequent stomach
aches, rapid heart rate or dizziness
even though a doctor’s examination
reveals nothing wrong. The fear
may also cause them to have trouble
sleeping or refuse to go to school.
And if anxiety goes unchecked,
children may begin to feel powerless
and overwhelmed, affecting the
quality of their life.
What are parents to do when they
see their children struggling?
At Markham Stouffville Hospital,
a team of professionals specializing
in children’s mental health offers
a number of unique programs,
whether a child needs short-term
care or long-term follow-up.
One of the hospital’s innovative
programs that specifically addresses
anxiety in children is called Worry
Busters, developed by social workers
Maria Iosue and Susan Russell nine
years ago. While children may feel
anxious at different times of the
year, Iosue and Russell tend to see a
spike in referrals during the fall.
“School can create significant
anxiety in children because it puts
a lot of pressure on them, whether
it’s being accepted by their peers or
the academic expectations of their
teachers and parents,” Iosue says.
The Worry Busters program,
which runs during the school year,
accepts children up to and including
age 13. Fathers and mothers — or
other significant caregivers —
must also make a commitment to
attend three separate sessions to
understand their role in helping
their children, Russell says.
During the program, the children
start off with 30 minutes of yoga,
which helps them to unwind from a
hectic day and focus on their bodies
and feelings.
“We find that yoga allows them
to relax and be more present in
the group and ready to grasp the
concepts of the program,” Iosue
At the beginning, participants
learn to identify where they feel
fear, whether it’s in their stomach,
neck, back or shoulders.
“Most children have difficulty
verbalizing what they’re going
through,” Iosue says.
But after they isolate that place
of fear, they learn how to describe
what they experience as a physical
They may say it’s like a fiery
dragon in their stomach or their
neck freezes up like an ice cube.
Once they have an image, the
children are encouraged to make a
sculpture out of clay representing
what their anxiety looks like. The
sculpture allows the children to put
some distance between themselves
and the anxiety, Iosue says, so they
can start to address it.
Iosue and Russell take the
participants through a four-step
process that helps them manage and
cope with their difficult situations.
After they have identified their
frightening feelings, they learn how
they think in anxious situations. If
there is a test at school, they may
harbour negative thoughts, believing
that they won’t do well or that they
will fail.
To counter that anxiety, the
children are given new positive
messages to practise, such as “I’m
going to do OK,” or “I’m going to
When they report back to
the group on their success, the
children are encouraged to reward
themselves in a small or big way,
such as congratulating themselves,
doing something they love to do, or
planning a special outing. With their
new-found confidence, they slowly
gain mastery over their anxiety,
Iosue says.
Parents, too, play a pivotal role in
helping their children learn how to
manage their anxiety.
“We explain different parenting
approaches and provide learning
opportunities to help parents
stay grounded in the face of their
children’s problems,” Russell says.
During the three sessions,
parents — or significant caregivers,
be it a grandmother, uncle or
close family friend — learn about
childhood anxiety and good
parenting approaches. They may
realize ways they have contributed
to their children’s anxiety, for
example, by being overprotective.
“If, by the age of 12, children
are still relying on their parents
too much, we help the children
and parents break the cycle in a
compassionate way,” Russell says.
She adds that children need to
be allowed to handle their own
“We also notice that parents
become open to looking at how
they deal with their own stress and
worries,” Russell says.
In applying the basics of the
program to their personal lives, they
become better at supporting their
By the end of the program,
parents are amazed at the
differences they see in their
“They tell us that they see their
children in a new light, that they
experience a totally different child,”
Iosue says.
Similarly, the children have
learned to recognize stress in their
“Some of the kids have told us
that they tell their moms to breathe,
or notice when their dads are
stressed out.”
The success rate of Worry
Busters is exceptional. After
participating in the program, for
which a doctor’s referral is required,
a great majority of children are able
to cope with their anxiety on their
“We rarely see any of the
participants return,” Russell says.
One Person at a Time.
Children and anxiety
Anxiety is a common — and normal
— experience for most humans,
young and old. The good news is
that anxiety can be managed, as
long as it is recognized and talked
about. So what do the signs of
anxiety in children look like? And
what should a parent do about it?
Anxious children tend to
worry: You may hear your child
say things like, “What if I fall down
in the playground and everybody
laughs at me?” or “What if I make
mistakes on my math test?” These
kinds of constant concerns are
common in anxious children.
Anxious children tend to avoid
situations: Your child may talk
about not wanting to eat with the
rest of the kids in the lunchroom, or
refusing to go to school, complaining
of frequent stomach aches.
Avoidance of situations occurs often
in anxious children.
Anxious children tend to need
a lot of reassurance: Even
though you have never been late
picking your son up from school, he
may ask you every day if you will
be on time. Similarly, your daughter
may often ask if the kids at school
like her. These kinds of questions
are repeated, even though your child
has had ample evidence that all is
If your child has been exhibiting
any of these signs, sit down with
them and talk about fears and how
common they are for everybody.
Tell them they will be OK and that
the fears will pass. Stay calm.
If, however, you find you are
having difficulty helping your child
with their anxiety, or they become
immobilized by their fears, talk to
your health-care provider.
You can make a difference with your donation
— Every dollar counts. Visit MSHF.ON.CA to give.
Social workers Maria Iosue, left, and Susan Russell are co-facilitators of Worry Busters, which deals with
children’s mental health issues, at Markham Stouffville Hospital. Nick Kozak photo
This is part 4 of a four-part series.
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