Worrying is a common human activity which everyone engages in. While children and teens have specific worries at various times – such as worry about school, doctors, robbers, dogs, or friendships – some children tend to worry about almost everything! When worry is frequent or across the board, it can become a serious source of distress in your child’s life. Moreover, your child’s intense worrying can also have an impact on you as you spend endless hours trying to offer reassurance and inspire greater confidence.
If your child worries a lot, consider the following tips:
Worry is a Form of Stress
In its mildest forms, worry is a stress-inducing activity. Worry involves thinking about stressful events like something bad happening, something going wrong or some disaster occuring. Such thoughts send stress chemistry through the body. Some people say they worry in order to prevent something bad from happening. Their logic is that it is not “safe” to be too sure of a positive outcome and believing that things will work out just fine can actually cause them to go awry. Interestingly, no spiritual or religious discipline advocates such an approach; on the contrary – every spiritually oriented philosophy encourages POSITIVE thinking in order to help positive events occur. Nonetheless, many people claim that worrying is somehow helpful to them. Some say that it prepares them in advance for disappointment so that they won’t be crushed if things do turn out badly. Like the superstitious philosophy above, this really makes no sense. Suffering in advance only ADDS a certain number of days or hours of pain to the pain of disappointment of something not turning out well. It would be better to be happy in advance and just feel badly at the time something actually goes wrong. Besides, most of the things that people worry about actually turn out O.K. which means that they have suffered many hours for no reason whatsoever! In short, there is really nothing that we can recommend about the habit of worrying. It is simply a bad habit that wears us down.
Because worrying is a habit, the more one does it, the more one will be doing it in the future. In this way, worrying is just like playing piano – practice and more practice makes it easier and faster to play the (worry) song. The worry habit builds up a strong neural pathway in the brain. However, once a person stops worrying, the neural pathway shrinks from lack of use and more productive thoughts will more easily and rapidly occur. But how can one stop worrying? And how can one help his or her child stop worrying?
How to Stop Your Own Worry Habit
- As soon as you are aware that you are worrying, start thinking about something else – anything else. For instance, look at what is right in front of you and describe it. This breaks up the worry activity and interrupts the automatic habit, sort of “blowing up” the worry pathways in the brain.
- Set aside 2 periods each day to specifically worry about a problem that you have. Allow five or ten minutes for each period and worry all you want. If you find yourself worrying at any other time of the day, STOP and remind yourself that it is not your worry period. Be sure to worry during your scheduled times.
- Learn “mindfulness meditation.” This technique can help you release worries as well gently. (See more information about related techniques below).
- Take the Bach Flower Remedy (see below) called “White Chestnut” for general worries (especially those that keep you awake at night) and “Red Chestnut” for worries about your close family members like parents, spouse and kids.
How to Help Your Child Stop the Worry Habit
When your child expresses a worry, name his feelings and don’t try to change them. For instance, if your child says, “I’m so afraid I’m going to fail my test.” you can say, “I understand Honey. You’re afraid you won’t pass.” Or, if your child says, “What if no one at the new school likes me?” you could say, “Yes, it’s scary to think that the kids won’t like you.” The main part of this technique is NOT trying to talk the child out of his or her worry (i.e. “Oh don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine!”). If you refrain from offering reassurance, your child will begin to reassure HIMSELF! It’s not much fun worrying out loud when no one tries to reassure you. This discourages the child from thinking so negatively – or at least, cuts it very short. Also, by naming and accepting the worry WITHOUT trying to change it, your child learns to be less fearful of his or her own feelings. Rumination (worry) is much less likely once the original feeling has been acknowledged. When you are in the habit of acknowledging and accepting the child’s fear or concern, the child learns to accept his or her own feelings as well and this causes them to release quickly.
Help Your Child Access Positive Imagination
Children often have wild imaginations. This imagination is commonly used to conjure up thoughts of bad things happening (i.e. robbers breaking in, a dog attacking him/her, etc…). Teach your child how to imagine good things happening instead. Show him how to imagine guardians, angels, friendly lions or knights etc. Imagination can be a powerful tool. For a young child, make up stories that employ protective images. If you are raising children within a faith-based framework, draw on this resource. Consult the teachings of your faith and pass these on to your child. Research shows that people of all ages who draw on their faith actually do much better emotionally, suffering less worry and stress in the long run.
Techniques to Calm the Mind
Breathwork and other forms of meditation can help retrain and calm a worried mind. Teaching a child to focus on his breath for even three minutes a day is a very powerful way to introduce him to the idea that he has some control over his thought process. By paying attention to the “in” breath and the “out” breath for just a few minutes, the child can have a mini-vacation from worry. He can turn for that vacation as part of his daily routine AND whenever he is feeling stressed from his own worrying process.For instance, instruct your child to think the word “In” when he’s breathing in and to think the word “Out” when he’s breathing out. Focusing on the breath in this way for even three minutes, produces powerful anti-anxiety chemistry in the brain.
Worriers focus on the negative – all the things that can go wrong. The worrier eventually builds up a strong negative tendency in the brain, automatically looking for worst case scenarios at every opportunity. To help counter this brain development, teach your youngster how to notice the good in his or her life. For instance, institute a dinner time or bedtime ritual that acknowledges all the things that are going right in life, all the ways things are good, all the prayers that have been answered, etc. A few minutes of this practice each day can be enough to stimulate a new direction of neural development in the brain. Self-help techniques like EFT (emotional freedom technique) can be very helpful for people who worry.
Use Bibliotherapy (read stories)
Ask your local librarian for suggestions for age-appropriate books and movies that highlight children’s abilities to courageously and effectively face challenges and solve problems. Such stories can help reduce a child’s sense of helplessness and vulnerability.
Talk about Resilience
If your child worries about terrorism, war and other threats to personal safety, address the worry directly. Keep in mind that with all the forms of media available today, it has become increasingly hard to shield a child from disturbing news and images. Therefore, trying to protect your child from such things should not be your goal. Instead, focus on giving your child the information he needs to feel reasonably safe and secure and then acknowledge that there is no absolute guarantees that bad things won’t happen. You can convey that people have always been able to “step up to the plate” and handle what comes their way. People can face adversity with courage. If you know some examples in your family life or in your community, share them with your child. You can also look to the larger world and select some heroes who have clearly demonstrated the human capacity to cope with challenge and difficulty. This approach is more helpful and calming than making false promises that nothing will ever go wrong in your child’s life.
Consider Bach Flower Therapy
Bach Flower Therapy is a harmless water-based naturopathic treatment that can ease emotional distress and even prevent it from occurring in the future. For worries, you can give your child the flower remedy called White Chestnut. White Chestnut helps calm a “noisy” brain. If your child experiences specific worries, such as a fear of that someone will get hurt or fear of illness, you can offer the remedy Mimulus. For vague or unclear fears (i.e. scared of the dark) you can use the remedy Aspen. Walnut is used for those who are strongly affected by learning about bad things happening in the media or other places. You can mix remedies together and take them at the same time. 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 fear or worry has dissipated. Start treatment again, if the fear or worry returns. Eventually, the fear or worry should diminish completely.
Worry as an Anxiety Disorder
When a child’s worry does not respond to home treatment or when it is causing significant distress or interfering with the youngster’s functioning at home or school, assessment by a mental health professional is important. The child may have a mental health disorder that can benefit from treatment. For instance, excessive and chronic worry is a symptom found in Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). In GAD, worry symptoms are often accompanied by a variety of physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fatigue, restlessness, and trouble sleeping. In other words, the worry habit can also make child feel physically unwell. A mental health professional can assess and effectively treat excessive worry, helping your child to enjoy a healthier, less stressful life.