Seems to me there couldn’t be a better time for a book for kids about an appealing and easy way to handle stress, as Island resident Noel Foy puts forth in her appealing children’s story “A.B.C. Worry Free.” Foy says, “The book is my response to the spike in anxiety we’ve been seeing in kids over the past decade. I wanted kids and adults to learn more about anxiety and its patterns (i.e., avoidance, catastrophic thinking, global thinking, internal focus). And for them to have a better understanding how anxiety affects the mind, body, decisionmaking, behavior, and relationships, and, most important, I wanted folks to know they can do something about their anxiety by implementing a strategy to help the mind and body reset.”
Evocatively illustrated by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov, Foy engages us (not just kids, since we would be reading it to them) in a story of a boy named Max who, while playing hide-and-seek with his friends, gets painfully ambushed by bees. Once stung, Max decides he will no longer join his friends outside for biking, street hockey, or other games. He confides his fear of being stung again to his amiable pup, Snuffy, and to his mother, but it isn’t until his brother introduces him to the A, B, C method of handling worries that Max is able to face his fear. His brother takes him through the process, which is easy for us to pick up ourselves while Max learns it: Accept the fear, Breathe slowly in and out through the feeling of anxiety, and C, change the fear by facing it. His brother explains, “To face our fears, it helps to change the way we think of them. Instead of worrying about getting stung, imagine all the fun you’ll have playing outside with your friends.” The adventure unfolds, and eventually Max embraces the technique and triumphs.
Asked about her ABC approach, Foy replies, “I wanted to develop a strategy that would be research-based, easy to remember, and could be used with kids and adults. Finding a way to connect a memorable acronym to the research was the next step. Knowing the brain can typically remember things in threes, I started thinking of acronyms or abbreviations that everyone would recognize — and ABC was one of the first to come to mind.”
Foy explains that research shows the benefits of mindfulness; slow, diaphragmatic breathing; and cognitive behavioral therapy as effective ways to reduce anxiety. She combines the techniques into one strategy or “trick” as she writes in the book. “As I played with these techniques, I realized I could simplify each step with a short phrase that reinforced the purpose of each concept in a way that correlated with ABC,” Foy says.
A former classroom teacher and learning specialist, Foy evolved into a neuro-educator. “I figured a children’s book was an approachable way to begin a conversation about anxiety,” Foy says. “I’ve used the book with all ages, from preschool to adults. We can learn about anxiety and its patterns through the characters, while also learning an actionable strategy that can be used anyplace, anytime to manage anxious thoughts.”
Foy’s journey took shape as a result of one of her sons being diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. “I wanted to know how the concussion would impact his learning and life, and this brought me to many brain conferences, where I learned about the impact of stress and anxiety on learning,” Foy explains. “When we are highly stressed and go to fight, flight, or freeze, our executive function (our highest-level thinking skills) goes offline, so our ability to pay attention, remember what we learn, make good decisions, regulate our emotions, think critically, or problem-solve go offline. I realized this explained why many children often zone out or act out in school, and from that point on, I decided I needed to do more to inform teachers, parents, and students about the brain, the impact of stress, and what you can do about it.”
Foy’s book includes a page of user-friendly tips for parents and educators about various responses to anxiety, and the do’s and don’ts about how to communicate with children who experience it. She also offers workshops and one-on-one coaching to teachers, parents, counselors, and students on anxiety, stress, and executive function.
“Teachers and parents aren’t typically trained in how to help kids who experience anxiety, and while much advice we commonly hear about anxiety is well-intended, it’s not often helpful or effective,” Foy says. “Folks often feel they’re being helpful by providing an anxious person with certainty, comfort, and constant reassurance. It may alleviate anxiety for the short term, but it doesn’t help folks manage anxiety next time it shows up, and it will! Anxiety needs skill-building, problem-solving, and while this may sound counterintuitive, anxious kids and adults need to learn how to tolerate a bit of discomfort as they step into situations that cause them anxiety, and build skills that help them manage their anxiety so they can ultimately stress less, enjoy more!”
“A.B.C. Worry Free,” by Noel Foy. Published by the National Center for Youth Issues, $9.95. Available at Edgartown Books and online.