We all experience some anxiety when faced with new and challenging events in our lives, and that is not bad. The hormones released in mild anxiety sharpen our senses and make us more able to meet the challenge. However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming we cannot control our response, we lose sleep, we find ways to avoid challenges by feigning illness, being indecisive, or refusing to try because we are not good enough.
As many as one out of four US children and teens experience severe anxiety.
For youth with Anxiety Disorders, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming and can be crippling. The Scouting program is designed to help kids of all ages and abilities to overcome anxieties and become self-confident and resilient. A well-trained leader can understand how to recognize the problems kids experience and use positive reinforcement to help them learn to solve those problems.
From the beginning, Scouting has deliberately placed youth in positions where they learn to talk openly and honestly to adults, to positively express their feelings, to be quiet and alone at times, to be kind and helpful to others, to be mentally and physically fit, to recognize failure as an opportunity to grow, and to recognize that a higher power cares about them. All of these skills can be learned and used to help youth who struggle with anxiety disorders.
Let me illustrate with some personal stories:
Don and the Downpour
Don* was small for his age, with red hair and freckles, when he joined our troop just before summer camp. In an initial Scoutmaster’s interview, Don told me he did not like school because the other kids were mean to him and he expected the same at camp. At camp, Don chose to be alone in his tent at the far side of the troop area. During Scoutmaster’s minute that evening, I reminded the troop they had promised to “help other people at all times” and that “friendly” and “kind” were important parts of the Scout Law. During the first two days in camp, Don was a loner, refusing to participate in activities or to work with his patrol.
On the afternoon of the third day, a thunderstorm approached the camp, and after making sure all the boys were under-cover, I retreated to my own tent. Don chose to sit by himself at the end of the tables in the shelter while the other boys started a checkers tournament. The storm was violent and I expected we would learn some lessons about properly fastening tents and how to dry things out after the storm, but I did not expect what happened to Don’s tent. The flat spot he had chosen for his tent turned out to be a delta at the mouth of a small watercourse from the top of the hill. Within seconds, his tent began to fill with water and within a minute it looked like a large, orange water balloon with water squirting out the vent on the back of the tent. Someone yelled, “Look at Don’s tent!” Don made a dash toward the tent, slipped in the mud, and fell face-down on the tent. Totally defeated, he made his way back to the shelter and sat alone with his head in his arms.
As the storm abated, Don came to me and said, “I’ve got to go home”.
I answered, “No, you’ll be alright”.
Don responded by wailing, “But I’ll die”.
I assured him that he’d be OK and pointed out that the Senior Patrol Leader was already making assignments for repairing the damage from the storm, and he needed to go help. In short order, the boys had a big fire going, clotheslines strung, and gear, including Don’s, hung up to dry. By nightfall, all appeared to be in order and everyone claimed to have a dry place to sleep. Don was involved with his patrol who were noisily planning the skit they would do at the opening ceremony in the morning. I silently thanked heaven for sending a storm just when we needed it, and assumed the story was ended. But I was mistaken.
Later that night as Taps echoed over the camp, I closed the campfire with a Scoutmaster’s minute on being self-sufficient, congratulated the boys on a job well done, and sent them off to bed. A few minutes later I heard a commotion break out near one of the tents, so I went to see what was happening. While I was trying to find out what was going on, the Senior Patrol leader suddenly and loudly announced, “Their tent is full of water!” That brought the whole troop out to see what was going on. I turned and found Don staring in amazement, and in a moment of clear inspiration said, “Don will you go help the Senior Patrol Leader show them what to do?” The boys went to dry out the tent with Don cheerfully explaining how to do it, and I breathed another prayer of thanks for a storm. Again I assumed that was the end of the story, but I was mistaken.
I had largely forgotten about the storm and the events that followed until a couple of weeks into the school year when Don’s mother called with a question no Scoutmaster ever wants to hear, “What happened to Don at camp?” I managed to mumble something about a storm and that he seemed fine when we brought him home. I asked what the problem was and She went on to say, “Don was always being bullied in school and had no friends and we didn’t know what to do about it. But whatever happened at camp has changed him so much! Now he stands up for himself and his friends. And I just wanted to thank you so much for being his Scoutmaster.” I was so befuddled all I could manage was a mumbled, “You’re welcome,” and the call ended.
Early the next summer, Don went to NYLT (Timberline), and later when the troop went to summer camp, he led the entire camp in the loudest and rowdiest rendition of Goin’ on a Lion Hunt that I have ever heard. Don went on to achieve the Eagle rank, serve well in an LDS Church mission, attend college and prepare to marry his long-time girlfriend. I still thank the Lord for sending the downpour that changed his life forever.
George’s Eagle Scout Project
George* was a fourteen-year-old who looked like an eleven-year-old and had a debilitating processing problem that I recognized when he came to with his proposal for his Eagle project. His mother came with him to help and provide support but had no knowledge of the process and requirements for the Eagle rank. We got through it and the proposal was approved pending obtaining the beneficiary’s signature, but it was a struggle. George had to be reminded sometimes two or three times to write down what he was instructed to do. Even with a pencil in hand and a notebook in front of him, he would nod and then forget to write it down. And then we would repeat the whole sequence again until he finally would write it down. It took what seemed like forever. When they left, I shook my head because I did not see any way George could ever actually lead the project even though it was a fairly simple project and plan. How do you get anything done when you can’t remember what happened ten seconds ago?
A couple of months later, much to my surprise, I received an invitation to his Eagle Court of Honor. Curious to find out if he had actually done it himself or if his mother had pushed and coached him every step of the way, I went to his Court of Honor. The evening was full of surprises. The program was more elaborate than I expected, the gym was decorated with flags, the troop would be doing a special flag ceremony, there were several speakers, the grand finale was a presentation by a father-son team of Native Americans, and the biggest surprise of all was that George was listed on the program as the Master of Ceremonies for the whole thing. The program went off without a hitch with George in charge and speaking without notes! Then at the end, the Native American family gave George a name meaning “valiant warrior and leader of men.” George was beaming as he thanked everyone who had helped him and gave a short extemporaneous speech about what a great experience his project had been. Over refreshments, I spoke with his mother who explained it had been a difficult struggle for George, but step-by-step he gradually overcame his disability driven by his intense desire to earn the Eagle rank. George had strong support from his Scout leaders, but he insisted on doing it himself and learned how to provide leadership to the other boys that worked on the project.
Making a Difference
One of the goals of Scouting is to promote the development of individuals, enabling them to grow and take their place in society as active citizens.
If you have children or teens in your family or neighborhood who suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem or related disorders, think about directing them to an appropriate Scout program. Scouting can help them overcome these obstacles and accomplish many things alongside their peers.
The inclusiveness within Scouting uniquely positions us to play an important role in modifying community attitudes and behavior towards individuals with identified needs; it starts with Scouts.
Please use this article as a guide for a better understanding of youth with Anxiety Disorders; how as Scouters, we can make a difference through simple interventions, program modifications and knowing when to get professional help.
For official information on how to help those with psychological needs, click HERE.
*Names have been changed for privacy.