Transforming Your Child's Big Worries Into Small Ones
Six easy tips for helping your child with anxiety.
Posted Jul 14, 2018
When I greet a child in my office for the first time, I ask the child if they know why they are coming to see me. Children typically say, “I don't remember” or “because I got in trouble at school.” I smile and nod. “It is my job to help kids with their worries,” I say warmly. I reassure them that I am good at turning big worries into small worries, so things aren't so hard. Kids usually look relieved and seem comforted. As I work with the child, I listen intently for worries.
When a child’s small worries are not handled, they can intensify. A child who has prolific anxiety sometimes forgets where the small the worries originated from, and exists in a state of generalized anxiety.
Anxious kids do funny things. Some act out aggressively because they feel small, so they need to compensate by acting big and intimidating. Some withdraw. Some can't fall asleep or stay asleep. Some wet the bed. Some are so anxious they have trouble eating.
Intense anxiety often causes behavioral issues, physical symptoms (stomach aches), developmental lags and regressions, or academic issues. Left untreated, the child may end up with vulnerabilities in their teen years, which is the worst time. Teens are attempting to figure out who they are in relationship to the world (identity formation). This task is difficult and almost unbearable if there is underlying depression and anxiety. Self harm and suicide are common phenomena in the teen years.
Unfortunately, if a parent isn't adept at helping their child with worries, the parent may be missing a necessity for raising a well-adjusted and happy child. Kids with anxiety and depression often struggle to meet their potential as teens because anxiety mixes with a vulnerable self-esteem. Assisting a child with their worries is imperative.
Contrary to popular opinion, a child’s worries do not go away on their own. Nor do worries go away because a parent tells the child not to worry. In addition, a child won't open up to a parent in the teen years if the parent hasn't helped the child with their worries during childhood.
The following are quick and easy tips to help parents transform their child’s big worries into small and manageable ones:
1) As your child talks to you, listen for worries.
2) If a worry is not identified, but the child seems to be feeling negatively, the parent should ask, “Are you worried about something, honey?”
3) Replace, “Don't worry about that” with a gentle and genuine, “That's a big worry, buddy. I get it.”
4) Put yourself in your child's shoes and try to remember a situation that caused you to worry when you were their age. Say, “I used to worry about "x" when I was your age. I understand.”
5) Reassure your child. “If what you are worried about happens, I'll be ready to help you work through it, honey.”
6) Avoid confusing sympathy with empathy. Empathy is understanding and honoring feelings. Empathy requires nothing else be done. It is healing in and of itself. Sympathy, however, is different. When a parent pities a child, they are tempted to lower the expectations or change the rules for their child. This strips the child of self efficacy and creates a sense of entitlement in the child. Empathy heals. Sympathy creates a sense of entitlement.
When a parent empathizes with a child’s feeling instead of rejecting the feeling, the child immediately feels understood and connected to the parent, which allows her to feel less alone with the negative feeling. Examples include: “That's a big worry. I get why you are upset.” “You’re are mad, and you have every right to be mad.” “You are disappointed. I would be too.” This instills a sense of closeness to the parent. Research shows that the closeness of the parent and child relationship is the strongest defense against teen depression, anxiety, and suicide. Don't enable, empathize.