Children worry about all kinds of things. Some children worry a little about a lot of topics while others worry a lot about just one topic. A common area of concern is the welfare of loved ones. Children with this issue may worry about everyone in their family or they may worry about just one person. Children around the age of four often begin to worry about their parents dying. This is a normal developmental stage, as the child begins to understand the concept of death. Fears of loss and abandonment temporarily become acute. These feelings usually pass without parental or professional intervention within a year or so. However, some children continue to have intense worries about their loved ones long beyond the preschool years.
If your child worries about one or more family members, consider the following tips:
Use Emotional Coaching
If your child expresses worry often, respond with emotional coaching. In emotional coaching, you name the feelings that your child is experiencing. Even though it might seem that naming the feeling could make it worse, the opposite actually happens: naming a negative emotion helps to release and clear it. If your child expresses fear that you will die, you can emotionally coach him by saying something like, “It makes you sad to think about Mommy or Daddy dying.” The child will typically get a bit more sad when he first hears you reflect his feeling back to him. This is a healthy sign! It means that you have “opened the door” and now the feeling is flowing out. It is the exact opposite of “shutting the door” by telling the child not to worry about things. When a parent says, “Don’t worry,” the worry doesn’t get cleared out; it just stays buried inside and the child learns that he can’t tell you his true feelings. If your child starts to cry or show more upset when you name his sadness, sit quietly with him and allow the sadness to pour out. In most cases, after a few moments, the child will say something like, “But you’re not going to die soon, right?” At that point, you can agree that it is unlikely that you will die soon since most people die when they’re very, very old. By acknowledging and accepting your child’s worries the way he experiences them and showing that you are not judging, correcting or discounting his worries, you can help him become emotionally calmer over time. Emotional coaching teaches a child that feelings pass quickly once you acknowledge them. It shows the child that YOU are not afraid to hear his scariest, saddest, most troubled thoughts. This helps him become much less afraid of his own feelings.
Having said all this, there is one caveat: after you have listened to a child express a particular worry a couple of times, move on to problem-solving. For instance, you might ask the youngster, “What will make you feel less worried about this?” You want to refrain from giving long, intense, nightly “therapy session” because excessive attention to worry can actually increase it! Give briefer and briefer responses when the same worries are repeatedly expressed and encourage more and more problem-solving and coping techniques. This becomes especially important if your child is suffering from obsessive worries that are expressed as repetitive questions. Instead of offering constant reassurance, make sure to use Emotional Coaching and check with a mental health professional to find out how to be most helpful. Parents can accidentally increase the obsessive tendencies of their child by continuing to offer reassurance
Provide Facts and Information
In addition to emotional coaching, give your child helpful information. Let him know, for instance, that most people die when they’re very old and the children are all grown up and married. Also let them know that when parents die young, there is always someone who will look after the children. This helps ease their fear of abandonment. If your child is worried about how you will cope with an illness, a divorce, a financial challenge or any other crisis that you may be dealing with, let the child know that you have resources. Give the impression (whether it is true or not!) that adults can deal with their problems, no matter what they are. Children are notorious for trying to “parent” their parents when the parents seem needy. This creates a serious psychological burden for the child, one that tends to leave its mark lifelong. Be clear that you are able to take of yourself and that your child has the important job of playing, studying and growing up.
Experiment with Bach Flower Remedies
Bach Flower Therapy is a harmless water-based naturopathic treatment that can ease emotional distress and even prevent it from occurring in the future. The flower remedy Red Chestnut can help those who often worry about their loved ones. Mimulus helps those who worry about specific bad things happening, like people dying, losing money or getting ill. Rock Rose is useful when a person has panic attacks. If a child is in the middle of having a panic attack, the Bach Flower prepared remedy called “Rescue Remedy” can help calm him down. Taken over time, Bach Flower remedies dissolve the tendency to worry. When receiving psychological counselling, people often find that Bach Flowers can help speed treatment along. You can mix several remedies together in one treatment bottle. To do so, you fill a one-ounce Bach Mixing Bottle with water (a mixing bottle is an empty bottle with a glass dropper, sold in health food stores along with Bach Flower Remedies). Next, add two drops of each remedy that you want to use. Finally, add one teaspoon of brandy. The bottle is now ready to use. Give your child 4 drops of the mixture in any liquid (juice, water, milk, tea, etc.) four times a day (morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening). Remedies can be taken with or without food. Continue this treatment until the worry has dissipated. Start treatment again, if the worry returns. Eventually, the worry will diminish completely.
Be Aware of your Own Behavior
Do you worry about family members? Does your child hear you express worry when you are talking to friends or relatives? Kids need to see adults face life with courage and optimism. They are always watching and listening – your worry is contagious. If you find you have a lot of fear or worry, get professional help for yourself. In this way, you’ll help your children start life with less fear and worry. Some people find that spirituality helps reduce fear. Having a concept of God, meaning and purpose (even to suffering) can help both kids and adults cope with life’s adversities. Let your child know that the grownups are grown up and know how to cope with illness, money problems and all other life challenges.
Teach your Child How to Work Through Anxious Feelings
Simple reassurance does not stop a child’s anxiety. In fact, frequent reassurance can reinforce anxious thinking. It is much more helpful to teach a child how to soothe her own anxious feelings. Activities that can help your child work through her feelings include:
- Breath Work/Meditation – Have your child breathe in while thinking the word “in” and breathe out while thinking the word “out.” Repeat this exercise with the youngster until he feels comfortable with the technique (or until you fall asleep – whichever comes first!). Breathing in this way calms the mind and body. The more often it is done, faster and more powerfully it works. It can be used throughout the child’s life, reducing stress and anxiety and preventing dependency on drugs, alcohol, destructive habits and other dysfunctional attempts to feel better.
- Positive imagery – Teach your child to think positively and imagine happy outcomes to situations instead of scary, negative ones.
- Prayer and relationship with God – Religion and belief can be a powerful tool in helping to reassure your child. If you or your child is religious you can remind him that G-d is always with him to protect him and that he can always pray for help.
- Engage in enjoyable activities – Enjoyable activities like playing with friends, riding a bike, reading, doing puzzles, playing on the computer or playing with toys can help your child take her mind off worries. Teach your child that SHE has the power to change a negative state of mind and mood. Show her how becoming involved in something enjoyable provides temporary relief from stress. Let her know that she can “worry on purpose” (see below) for a few minutes at pre-selected times each day, instead of worrying all day.
- Writing down daily thoughts and worries in a journal – Articulating one’s thoughts (whether to another person or on paper) helps to get them out of the body. Writing worries down in a journal can help your child release his or her worries. This is one way to “worry on purpose” and can become a daily exercise to help clear the mind.
- Watching worries – this is another way to “worry on purpose.” Teach your child to sit quietly, with eyes closed if he is willing, and worry. While the child is sitting and watching his worries come and go, he is developing and strengthening a calm part of the personality called “the witness.” This is the part of us that observes our thoughts, feelings and actions. Even though one part might be scared, the observer is neutral. By observing once a day, the calm observing part of the personality gets stronger and stronger and the child achieves a bit of distance from his own fears.
A small amount of worry about loved ones can be normal. However, when worry is accompanied by distressing physical symptoms and/or impairs your child’s day-to-day life, it may point to conditions such as GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) or OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). Generalized Anxiety Disorder is an anxiety disorder in which a person frequently experiences excessive and irrational worry. In GAD, worry symptoms are often accompanied by a variety of physical symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, fatigue, restlessness, and sleeping issues. In Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), worry manifests as a combination of troubling fears and behavioral rituals to ease those fears. OCD can impair a child’s normal life and routine. In order to find out if your child is suffering from a psychological disorder instead of simple worry, seek professional assessment. These disorders respond very well to treatment and early intervention leads to the fastest cure.