Victoria residents Dante Tsui, 13, and his mother Kira Antinuk. Dante recently learned to control his anxiety in a program called Nature’s Way. Contributed photo

Victoria residents Dante Tsui, 13, and his mother Kira Antinuk. Dante recently learned to control his anxiety in a program called Nature’s Way. Contributed photo

Nature’s Way program helps youth manage anxiety

More kids age 10 to 13 dealing with anxiety, says expert

Growing up, Dante Tsui was known as the boy who was overly obliging and happy all the time.

His mother Kira Antinuk would often hear from other parents about how cheerful, happy-go-lucky, clean and obliging the 13-year-old Victoria boy was. On top of being cheerful, Dante’s room was always perfectly clean. His bed was always made, his Lego pieces had to be facing the same way and he never left any pieces on the floor.

All seemed normal for the young family until last year when Dante’s Central Middle School counsellor said he could be wrestling with anxiety and was having a difficult time expressing his feelings in fear he would disappoint people — something that came as a shock to his parents.

“He’s very eager to please and he’ll always try his best. He can’t tolerate anything being out of order,” Kira said. “It was to the point where I was able to recognize this is something that can cause him stress and anxiety when things in his life feel like they’re not in place. I think he was really bottling everything up inside.”

It was then, the counsellor mentioned the Nature’s Way program. As part of the seven-week nature-based therapy program, youth between the ages of 10 and 13, meet at the middle school and walk over to Government House once a week. Through a combination of play, experiential learning and mindfulness in nature, the group focuses on enhancing children’s strengths and resources to take charge of their anxiety and its impact on their lives.

According to Katy Rose, program coordinator and founder of Human Nature Counselling that runs the program along with the Crystal Pool and the City of Victoria, anxiety levels have increased among youth in both elementary and middle schools due to a number of factors.

“Kids spend lengthy amounts of time, not just watching TV, but video games and social media is so demanding,” Rose said.

“The constant demands of social media, living up to expectations around social media, being on it all the time, checking it all the time, it’s very demanding on a child’s brain. They’re not grounded in the present and the presence of people … and that’s a problem,” Rose said.

In the program, youth play outside to reduce the sense of isolation, and are taught mindfulness through sensory awareness practices and to pay attention to what’s around them. In one activity called the problem rock, youth find a rock and write down the specific thiing that causes them stress. Then they use it to embody their anxiety and release it.

Kira noticed a difference in Dante within a few weeks of being in the program. Over the weeks, Dante shared what he had learned with his family and by the end, was able to verbalize when he was feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

He has also taken skills he learned from the program and applied them to life.

From time to time, Kira will find Dante sitting in his room silently, holding his rock which says “everything must be in its place” — one of the things that causes his anxiety.

“When I ask him about it after, he just tells me ‘I was having a hard time feeling like everything was getting out of place in life so I decided to put those worries in my rock so I wouldn’t have to carry them with me’,” said Kira. “It’s pretty remarkable … He feels like it’s okay to talk about it (anxiety), it’s okay to share and it’s not going to mean he’s not doing well, it just means we’re able to help him out a little bit more.”

Since the program began in 2011, it has helped roughly 30 to 35 youth in Victoria. In the future, Rose hopes to expand the program and work in different spaces, such as Summit Park, to help schools which she says are “overrun with the issue of anxiety.” She added there also needs to be additional support for mental health in the community.

The Nature’s Way program runs April 12 to May 24 from 3:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. and costs $295. For more information or to sign up, email info@humannaturecounselling.ca.

kendra.wong@vicnews.com