This week Sissy Goff, Director of Child and Adolescent Counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to share tools for helping kids process anxiety.
LET’S GET IN TO THE EPISODE
Welcome to the Orange Kids Podcast, where we talk about the big ideas of kids’ ministry and discuss practical solutions to our weekly challenges. This week, Sissy Goff, Director of Child and Adolescent Counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to share tools for helping kids process anxiety.
Mike welcomes the crew, but we’re missing Kellen and his classic “Whasssup!”
He’s here in spirit… which means the closing ditty will have to happen in spirit, as Gina refuses to promise a ditty. She draws the line. It makes her anxious, perhaps?
Which leads us to today’s topic: worry and anxiety in kids. As parents and ministry leaders, we can see it, but we often don’t feel qualified to address it.
That’s why we’re excited to welcome Sissy Goff to the podcast!
We acknowledge that Sissy has a third of the alphabet behind her name. Mike had to look it all up.
Sissy: Just means I had to take a lot of tests.
Let’s dive in!
1. If I’m a ministry leader, I already have so many week-to-week tasks to address. Why should we be talking about worry?
Sissy: I’ve been counseling for 27 years, and I’ve never seen anything affect kids like worry and anxiety today.
One in four kids deals with anxiety.
Girls are twice as likely to deal with anxiety as boys.
If a parent deals with anxiety, kids are seven times more likely to struggle with it.
When a child battles anxiety, it means they are smart, conscientious, and try hard. Those kids are going to be at church on Sunday, because they don’t want to miss. They don’t want to disappoint their parents or you. So they’re going to show up. Other kids dealing with emotional issues may be struggling so much they can’t come. But kids struggling with anxiety are going to show up—and then may have a panic attack under your watch.
It’s debilitating for so many kids. They tend to suffer in the silence.
Any of us working with kids need to have some degree of knowledge of not only what’s happening [with anxiety], but how can I help.
2. What is worry, and how is that different from anxiety?
Sissy: I think of it as a continuum. All kids and adults deal with worry. It propels us. It travels along this continuum to anxiety.
We’re living in a world of over-diagnosing kids.
We don’t want kids in any way to define themselves by how they struggle. I like to camp out on the word worry rather than anxiety.
All kids worry. We all have intrusive thoughts of worry. But for kids who battle with anxiety, it’s more of an emotion or recurrent issue. It’s a one-loop roller coaster at the fair. The thought gets stuck in this loop and it goes around and around and they can’t figure out how to get it out.
The average age of onset of anxiety was 8; now it’s dropping down to 6.
Gina: I would think it’s easier to recognize worry and anxiety in middle or high school kids.
Sissy: They can talk about it.
Gina: We have a culture of diagnosis where we will label what we’re walking through and it may not actually be that.
Sissy: There are times a diagnosis is important. We want to allow for that when a child needs it. But we don’t want to jump there.
3. If anxiety shows up that early, as ministry leaders, how do we pay attention to this? How do we train our small group leaders to pay attention to this?
Mike: Is it fair to say that worry is attached to fear?
Sissy: Fear is a one-time event. We’re afraid of something. I’m afraid of spiders. But worry tends to hang around longer. It’s how much it lingers.
Gina: How does a ministry leader equip small group leaders? What do they watch for to know when there is a need to lean in and get curious about where a child is?
Sissy: All kids have fears. The child who worries will often not say those things. In middle and high school, kids can talk about it. Younger than that, it will manifest in different ways – perfectionistic tendencies. Tummy aches. Headaches. Something physical. They might be more emotional as they leave a parent.
Girls reserve their most negative emotions for home. You may not see it at church. But for both genders there may be flashes of anger that don’t make sense. It may be during times of transition or when an expectation changes.
From a parent’s perspective, it may look like manipulation. Something wasn’t happening as the child expected, and it made them anxious. It throws them into a spin they don’t know how to get out of.
Look for what’s under the behavior, especially if they don’t have the words to say yet.
Kids are trying hard to keep it inside; it’s often one to two years before a family recognizes what’s going on.
Gina: How would you counsel a ministry leader or small group leader to have a conversation with a parent about a child’s possible anxiety?
Sissy: Because we’re looking at this seven times more likely situation, the parent you are approaching possibly has anxiety themselves. The parent is trying hard and conscientious. You want the parent to feel like they know their child better. You are looking to them as the authority on their child. If we act like we know more about their child, they will be less likely to jump on board.
I’m a perfectionist myself. If someone has to say something hard to me, if they give me the benefit of the doubt, I hear it much better.
Go to a parent with that in mind. Start with a coming-alongside statement. “Your child is such a great kid. I see her try so hard.” Start with something that says “I get it, I see you, you’re trying hard.”
Blame it on someone else: “I just read a book on this,” or “I heard someone speak on this topic.” You’re not singling them out or saying that they’re doing something wrong.
“I’m seeing her struggle in a way that I think you’d want to know.”
“I think something may be happening inside of her she’s not talking about.”
Gina: A ministry leader has same advantage as a counselor. You can tell a parent, “The fact that you are here today speaks volumes to how much you care for your child.”
If we can affirm parents, that sets us up. It gives a bridge of trust to move toward that conversation, to suggest there may be something more happening.
Mike: “Trust is the antidote to worry. Kids feel bravest when someone they love reminds them of the truth of who they are” (quoted from Sissy’s book).
As a parent, if I’m approached by a random volunteer, I’m less likely to be open to them than I would be to a trusted connection.
At Orange, we encourage churches to put a leader who loves God in the life of every child. Those small group leaders gain credibility with parents when they’ve been in a child’s life for years.
4. How have you seen having another trusted voice play out in the journey of a child battling anxiety?
Sometimes kids will hear the same words differently from another trusted adult than from a parent.
Sissy: As an outside voice, help the parent move toward trust in their child first. Often, the parent is aware of their own anxiety. These parents offer empathy and understanding, because they didn’t get that as a child. But then the child is not learning to work through their anxiety. It’s so important to remind them the truth of who they are. That they can defeat whatever is in front of them.
Say, “You got this” rather than “Let me get this for you.”
We’re seeing an epidemic of “Let me get this for you,” which really means “I don’t trust you to be able to handle this.”
“I trust that God’s got you, so I can trust you that you’ve got this.”
Sissy had a conversation with a seven-year-old girl recently. The girl said, “I worry a lot. The other day I was worrying about my grandparents and I remembered the story about Jesus and the storm and that Jesus said to the disciples when they got worried, ‘Where is your faith?’ And I thought, ‘I’ve got faith and I’m okay.’”
I wish every child could grab ahold of that daily. I’m not talking about diagnosable anxiety when we need to layer in a lot of different helps—but a sense of trust and faith on a daily basis.
It’s my trust in believing that Jesus has me and has my best, and helping kids move to that.
We’re living at a juncture where kids emotional lives and spiritual lives do not meet as much as they used to in a way that is really tragic—and we want to help them get to something different.
Gina: The opportunity for ministry leaders is on two sides. It’s putting a leader in the life of every kid who shows up consistently and predictably to build a bridge of trust with that kid so that when I look at them and say “you’ve got this,” they actually believe me.
As a ministry leader, it’s being able to turn to the parent and say “you’ve got this.” And what your child needs to hear from you is “you can do this.”
I’m not equipped to counsel and train a parent or child how to handle persistent worry. But I can communicate to a small group leader the value and power of their opportunity to be this trusted voice sitting in this space with a kid to say: “You’ve got this.”
Mike: It like the honesty and challenge of your book. There’s a section called “The New Prosperity Gospel.” It used to be “If you follow Jesus, you’ll get rich.” Today, it’s “If you follow Jesus, you’ll be fine and you won’t worry.”
Sissy: Your life with look Instagram worthy.
Mike: You say in your book, “There is good and life and light this side of heaven. And yes, there is also trouble. And kids, when they get to a certain age, and if they are honest, know it to be true. But they sure need us as the church to be honest with them or their reality and their expectations will never match up in a way that brings hope.”
Let’s stop pretending to live that Instagram-worthy life and be open and honest. When kids open up, we can tell that we are worried and scared, too, as opposed to telling them it’s all okay. Just have faith.
Gina: I love that we can have hope around this. To close, let’s get as practical as we can. There are things we can teach small group leaders and things we can look for as ministry
Kids in general struggle with worry and anxiety. In Sissy’s book, there is a specific focus on girls because they can mask it so well.
Equip leaders in your ministry to have an eye for signs of worry and anxiety—and encourage them to bring that to you. Then you can lean in with intentional conversations with parents.
5. Is there anything else that a ministry leader could do? In the book you mention “putting yourself out of a job.”
Sissy: Practically, if we could teach kids to recognize that voice in their head. For a child, that voice sounds like truth. “While you’re at church, your mom could die. You could get sick and throw up in front of everyone.” Or whatever it is they’re afraid of.
When you hear them say that out loud, or you see them zone out. We need a language where we name it.
I call it Worry or The Worry Monster.
“What’s Worry saying to you right now?”
That starts to name it. That takes away its power.
Then we can point to truth and beautiful verses about worry. “In this world you will have trouble but take heart, I have overcome the world.”
We don’t have to worry, because He has overcome.
When we can start to name it, then we have all these beautiful rich Scripturally-based tools to help them feel stronger than their worries.
When we name it, they can start to fight it. Give them tools to go after it.
Mike attempts to draw a closing ditty from Gina. She draws the line at NO.
Consider ways that you could start equipping your ministry leaders to spot worry and anxiety in the kids they lead—and how to help kids name and address those worries. This might be as simple as a short conversation in your next Sunday morning volunteer huddle, part of your next volunteer training, or even a video or email.