When expecting my daughter, I wondered if she’d inherit my green eyes and creativity. I didn’t think much, however, about the traits I hoped she and I would not share. As luck and genetics would have it, we’re both big worry warts. My heart sinks every time she wrings her hands and bites the inside of her lip. I can relate to the helpless feeling worry can bring.
How do we help our kids with worry when we worry, too? Here are five things I’ve found can help calm a worrisome youngster.
1. Name the emotion. There is great power in giving things a name. Before starting pre-school, my four year old said, “Mama, there are bugs in my belly.” You and I might call it a nervous stomach, and see it as a symptom of worry. Learning to recognize emotions make them less scary. Books can help introduce and explain emotions on an age-appropriate level for children. Two of our favorites are Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes and Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster by Michelle Nelson Schmidt. After having a name for her emotion, my daughter could tell me exactly when she was worried and we could begin working through it together.
2. Don’t minimize their worries. “Oh, honey, there’s no reason to worry.” Most of us moms instinctively offer soothing words to an anxious child. And, it’s true, many worries are blown out of proportion. Classmates will not laugh all the way through your son’s presentation. Nothing actually lurks in the shadows of your daughter’s bedroom. And, the likelihood of a devastating earthquake happening here in DFW like it did in Mexico is quite unlikely.
My daughter worried about that last one after seeing reports out of Mexico following the massive quake that struck there. Developmentally, it’s completely normal for her to imagine what it would be like if it happened where she lives. It’s a scary thought! Nonetheless, aim for a balance of understanding and reassurance. Sharing facts with her about fault lines in the U.S. proved as helpful for diffusing my daughter’s worries as checking under the bed for monsters before saying goodnight.
3. Don’t project your own worries. Kids prone to worry do not need to stack adult worries on top of their own. Take care to vent about your financial, relationship, job, etc., concerns with a spouse or friend out of earshot of your pint-sized worrier. With that said, it is also important to normalize worry and not make it something to be ashamed of. When your child expresses a worry, tell him or her you can understand and feel worry sometimes, too, just be careful when sharing examples.
4. Offer outlets other than talking. Sometimes talking with my daughter about her worries wasn’t enough. I needed to find something else to help her work out the feelings. For her, drawing pictures is a great tool for expressing her fears. Once she’s done, she tells me what the picture represents. It’s been an amazing gateway to truly helpful conversations. For younger ages, redirecting their attention with a walk outside or a fun game goes a long way to lighten the mood.
5. Know when more help is needed. Worry is normal, but chronic anxiety can be debilitating for children and adults alike. You know your child best, so follow your instinct if you feel his or her tendency to worry is out of control. Talk to your pediatrician about your concerns to get professional care if needed.