Anxiety and worry in children - some tips and tricks that will help you!

Last night, I was talking and cuddling with J, my oldest, before bed. He confided in me that he had a few "worries" that were weighing on him, and I invited him to tell me about them if he wanted to. Now, to be honest, most of his concerns wouldn't really have made my radar as something to worry about, but they mattered to him so I listened without judgment and then tried to help him work through why they may not be worth worrying about. He is a somewhat anxious, Type A oldest child, so I have some experience in dealing with his anxieties. Thought I would share some of our strategies, which I've gleaned from LOTS of reading up on the issue and a consultation with a child psychologist.

1) Never belittle the anxiety that your child is feeling! To him/her, it is very real and scary. Even just dismissing it without being mean tells your child that he is not being heard and makes it less likely that he will confide in you about what you might consider "real problems"

2) Ask the following 3 questions and give them time to think about an answer:
(a) Is it possible or realistic that what you are worried about will happen? (e.g., a kid might be worried about vampires, which isn't possible, or they might be worried that their parents will die in a car accident, which is unlikely but still possible) Acknowledge that their possible fears ARE possibilities but try to let them see that they aren't very common or likely without minimizing the fear.
(b) If it's possible/realistic, then what's the worst that can happen? For many of our children's fears, the outcome is really not that horrible. For example, if they are worried that your car will run out of gas on the road b/c the low gasoline light turned on (this happens to me all the time b/c I'm terrible about refuelling), you can tell them: "Yes, it is possible that I will run out of gas, but I don't think it's very likely b/c I know there is a gas station a few blocks away. Still, even if we do, it will be annoying and big pain, but we have AAA membership and somebody will come to get us. And then maybe Mummy will learn her lesson to fuel up more frequently."
(c) If the the worst that can happen is really bad, will worrying stop it from happening? For example, if the child's worry is that a parent will die in a car accident, then you might say: "You know that many, many people drive cars every day, and most of them don't even get into car accidents let alone die. But, even though it is not very likely, you are right, it is possible - and very scary - that something like this could happen. And that would be pretty awful. I can't make you any promises that this will never happen, but I can tell you that I always try to drive really carefully and do everything in my power to make sure it doesn't. Do you think that worrying about me will will decrease my chances of having an accident? [wait for them to answer]. Exactly - it won't. So I'll be careful when I drive, and we will be grateful for all the time we have together b/c we know bad things can happen but usually don't."

By the way, this approach also works on yourself or an adult as well, though you'd make the discussion more age-appropriate of course.

At the end of our conversation (J's worries in this case weren't very serious, as I've mentioned), he said to me: "Mummy, you are like a hunter shooting my worries out of the sky! Thank you for listening to me. I really love our conversations." And that is when my heart melted into a puddle on the floor.

Do you or your children have anxiety? What do you think of this approach?

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4Rina
Moms Expertise
07/09/14
4Rina
Haha, Laura, I don't remember any of the 70s, but I do distinctly remember in the 80s driving in a friend's mom's station wagon, facing backwards without a seat belt to be found! So if that's how we dealt with car safety, I can only imagine mental health :-)
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07/09/14
4Rina
"Internal dialogue" - that's exactly the right way to describe it!! What you are trying to do is teach them a skill that they can use throughout their life, to talk themselves down when they get nervous.
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About Rina
Birth: September 08
On Moms.com since: Dec 16, 2013
I'm a working mom of 4. My husband, kids and I live in Toronto, Canada. I love to read pretty much anything I can get my hands on, am addicted to chocolate and kissing my kids' necks (they all still let me do it!) and am a bit of a political junkie.