Taking the reins on your child's anxiety could mean a trip to the farm

What do a fainting goat, a miniature horse and a hissing cat have in common? They're all ways for kids to better understand anxiety.

'Each animal teaches a lesson,' says counsellor

Wilber the pig rolls over for tummy rubs on Lucy Fouasse's Lil' Steps Miniatures and Wellness Farm. (Kim Kaschor)

Wilber the pig might be a sucker for tummy rubs, but his real soft spot is for an anxious cat named Scarface. The relationship works well for the pair, and it also provides fodder for Lucy Fouasse's work with anxiety disorders and kids.

"None of the cats get along with Scarface, and we see behavioural issues. He will hiss, he'll run away, he'll get kind of aggressive when you approach him. To me, that's anxiety. He's actually fearful of people," said Fouasse, the director of Lil' Steps Miniatures and Wellness Farm in St. Malo, Man.

Scarface and Wilber are two of Fouasse's "co-facilitators" in her counselling work on the farm. Whether through an anxious cat, a goose that thinks he's a duck, or a five-pound dog who is the big boss of the farmyard, Fouasse teaches kids about our different roles and personalities, and the many ways in which our bodies respond to stress.
Cristabell is one of Fouasse's fainting goats who freezes when she is excited or afraid. (Kim Kaschor)

Another one of Fouasse's star co-facilitators is Cristabell the fainting goat.

"She freezes. She faints when she gets really excited or scared, so we talk about that body response. Each animal teaches a lesson about the flight, fight or freeze response," said Fouasse.

Cristabell rarely faints on the farm, which Fouasse says demonstrates that we can learn to better control our body's response to fear. Still, the goal is never to completely overcome it.

"Feeling fearful is a good thing for us, it keeps us safe. But when it gets in the way, we talk about how to face our anxiety in small ways and look at it for what it is so that we can deal with it," said Fouasse.

Cristabell sometimes accompanies Fouasse to the classroom for the work she does with schools. Fouasse says she's encouraged by the number of schools that are taking a proactive approach to dealing with anxiety in kids.

"It's about giving them some of that language. We look at any kind of strategy that could help kids," said Pauline Lafond-Bouchard, the superintendent of Red River Valley School Division.

Red River Valley School Division is one of three divisions that currently contract Fouasse for counselling work. The division is currently working on a mental health strategy, and helping kids cope with anxiety is a priority.

"It's a life skill, really. When they feel that anxious it's not necessarily just at school that they're going to feel it. It could be at home, too, for whatever reason, and it's giving them the tools to be able to cope with that," said Lafond-Bouchard.

For Fouasse, it also means better understanding why some kids act out.

"A lot of times, if you actually look at what's underneath the behaviour problem, it's actually anxiety-driven. So that's a really important piece for us to see. If we see it as anxiety then we can deal with it as anxiety, not as this behavioural difficulty," said Fouasse.

Lucy Fouasse with one of her babydoll sheep. (Kim Kaschor)

Through her farm programs and her work in schools, Fouasse sees anxiety arising from bullying, shyness and a high sensitivity to the noise of a classroom setting. For her, the solution is building confidence and resilience in kids, which for some will start with her miniature horses and lead to a walk with Fleur, one of her top mares.

"You have to pretend that you're 1,200 pounds because Fleur is 1,100 pounds. That's how we face our anxiety sometimes. We have to pretend that we're bigger than we are," said Fouasse.