It’s been widely reported that anxiety is on the rise. Children and young people seem to be especially affected – in fact 71% of the children and young people who are supported by Place2Be’s school-based counselling present with generalised anxiety. 61% are affected by social anxiety and 54% by separation anxiety. What will this mean for future generations of adults and parents?

Of course, feeling worried or stressed is completely normal and something that all of us are likely to experience at some point. It’s important as mental health professionals to encourage teachers and parents, to ‘normalise’ these feelings and help children find healthy ways of coping with stressful situations. I’m sure many of us who are working therapeutically with anxious adults might speculate at some point if some of that anxiety stems from childhood, and whether with more support it could have been prevented.

Whatever your age, when anxiety starts to cause significant distress and interferes with everyday life, professional therapeutic support might be required.

The anxious therapist

I’m a bit of a perfectionist and one of the reasons I was drawn to becoming a counsellor was a fantasy that I would tidy up the world around me and make it shiny and neat, and in doing so, feel good about myself.

In the many years I’ve spent training counsellors for Place2Be, I have noticed that I’m not alone. It seems that counsellors have a tendency to be hard on themselves, to want to get things right, and to feel anxious and ashamed when – inevitably – things turn out to be less than perfect.

Learning something new is inherently anxiety provoking. For people entering counselling training, this is especially true because the process is a personal one. The pressure of being scrutinised and assessed means that anxiety runs high, and the challenge for us as tutors is to enable students to accept and embrace the imperfections of their outside and inside worlds. Learning how to do this enables them to manage and contain the anxieties that clients bring into the room.

The Place2Be Postgraduate Diploma in Counselling Children in Schools, offers students a robust, challenging but structured environment in which not only to develop skills and knowledge but also to learn about themselves and build the confidence and resilience needed to work therapeutically with vulnerable children and young people.  

On this journey, nerves are completely normal. Pippa, a graduate from 2013 noted: “When I began the diploma, and realised my school placement would begin after just 3 months I was extremely apprehensive – but when it came around, I was definitely ready.” 

Personal, emotional and professional support are absolutely essential for trainee and qualified counsellors alike and one of the unique aspects of Place2Be’s training is the free, same-day supervision. Lois – who now runs her own private practice and works as an independent school counsellor – added: “One of the biggest selling points for me was the fact that you’ve got free supervision on tap. I never felt that I was going home with things that were worrying me; it was very supported and safe.”

Whilst on the Postgraduate Diploma students are required to undertake their own personal therapy and take part in a personal process group on the course. The students get to know each other very well which is not always entirely comfortable. However, there is much to be learnt about the self from uncomfortable relationships and because of this the students generally form supportive relationships with each other. Lois, a 2011 graduate really highlighted this point: “It was a challenge to have to be so open about myself, but it helped us bond as a group. We supported each other through it.”

Working therapeutically with children and young people

Some of you might be already qualified to work therapeutically with adults, but interested in developing a specialism in working with children and young people. One of the key differences is in the style of communication.

Where adults find words to communicate, children and young people express themselves in a multi-dimensional way, through play, music, body language or even silence. As their therapists, we need to learn, to ‘listen’ to and attune with these different layers of communication; in Place2Be’s therapeutic work, we use art and play to allow children to explore their thoughts and feelings in the most comfortable way for them.

Many of the graduates from our Postgraduate Diploma cite this as the most fascinating thing about working with children. Caroline, a 2012 graduate of our diploma who now heads up a bereavement support charity, summarised this: “What stands out for me about the experience is how you learn to communicate with the children in both a verbal and non-verbal way. This has been so vital for my current work in a bereavement support charity as I am able to understand and interpret children’s behaviour and actions, without them actually having to verbalise how they are feeling.”

Even for those who are not therapeutically trained, it’s helpful to take notice of a child’s changing behaviours. You may find that a child struggling with anxiety might be finding it hard to concentrate, sleeping badly and becoming irritable amongst a range of other tell-tale signs. Anxiety is often at the root of behaviours that are disruptive and may be getting a child or young person into trouble at school or at home.

Really listening to children and enabling them to recognise and notice their feelings is the first step to finding healthy coping strategies which will build their emotional resources for the future. Perhaps if we can offer supportive and development relationships to more children and young people now, our adult therapist colleagues won’t be overwhelmed in future. As the famous Frederick Douglass quote goes: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”.