When Kids Worry

Worry is like a rocking chair: It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.
—Erma Bombeck

It’s natural to worry when your kids are worried. Parents generally don’t like to see their kids in any state of distress. But some worry is normal and even healthy, and it’s best for parents to let their children learn from it. If, for instance, your daughter has a presentation in the morning and hasn’t prepared, it makes sense for her to be worried and that might compel her to take action. On the other hand, there are times when too much worry should raise a red flag. Talking with other parents can be a good way to get a sense of how “normal” your children’s worries really are. In addition, the tips below can help you help your children learn how to cut down on pointless “rocking.”

Tips for . . .

  • all parents
    • Worry that lasts for weeks or months at time, causes your child a lot of suffering, shows up as physical symptoms, or otherwise interferes with day-to-day life may be a cause for concern. A relatively small percentage of young people are diagnosed with and treated for what’s called anxiety disorder. One Web site for more information is www.worrywisekids.org.
    • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Separation and stranger anxiety are normal for children in this age group. Both show a healthy attachment to their primary caregivers. When your children feel this kind of stress, show that you aren’t afraid or concerned, and assure them they are safe and/or you will come back for them.
    • Children this young are only beginning to separate what’s real from what is not. Until they are able to do so they may be easily frightened by costumes, movies, and other types of “make believe.” It’s important to let them know they are safe and then turn off the set or take off the mask.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • As children learn more about the world, they begin to fear real things. Fire drills, storms, illness, and other scary events might trigger intense reactions and emotions. Take their fears seriously and talk with them about the remoteness of dangers like fires and lightning, and about how taking precautions keeps us safe.
    • Resist the urge to brush off concerns that seem minor to you. Instead ask questions, listen attentively, reflect back what you hear your child saying, and offer insights.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • A big worry for older children and young adolescents has to do with their place in the world. Concerns about their intellect and physical appearance, as well as the number and types of friends they have, are all normal. You can help them by acknowledging these concerns if and when they share them, but not getting caught up in them yourself.
    • Learning about various physical and mental health concerns in school can cause temporarily exaggerated worries in children about illness and injury. Be sure to continue to teach your children ways to take care of themselves and make wise choices.
    • Keep in mind that much adolescent worry is about over-thinking “what-if” scenarios. “What if I don’t get invited?” “What if something terrible happens?” “What if she gets really mad?” Sometimes you can put a stop to this my simply asking, “Okay, so what if that really happened or you really made that choice?” By getting them thinking about the real consequences rather than just ruminations, they can better see if there are actions they can take, or that maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Sometimes teenagers have the opposite problem from too much worry; they can tend to think they are invincible. Continue to set boundaries and enforce consequences that are consistent with your family’s values and designed to protect your teens’ well-being.
  • If your teenagers worry about a specific problem such as weight, acne, or an inability to concentrate, help them find solutions through the Internet, books, personal contacts, or talking with a professional such as a pediatrician.

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