Helping Children Manage Worry


Fear, anxiety and worry; these emotions are part of being human, and serve a useful function. It’s fear of getting hurt that keeps us from taking dangerous risks, and worry about not being able to keep the bills paid that motivates us to get up in the morning and go to work.

For some people, fear or worry can also limit the things they are willing to do and try, affecting the quality of their lives. Whether anxiety is a positive or negative force in our lives depends in part on our constitutions or predispositions, as well as the degree to which we can channel this anxiety in healthy ways.

As adults, we have learned ways to respond to anxiety. We try to reduce anxiety-provoking situations and take care of business in order to avoid unpleasant consequences. We engage in enjoyable activities such as exercise or hobbies that help us relax and stop thinking about the stresses in our lives. We reassure ourselves and try to replace anxious thoughts (“People will criticize me”, “I won’t do it well”, “I’ll never get it done on time”) with comforting ones (“That probably won’t happen”, “It’s probably going to be OK”). For most people, strategies such as these keep anxiety at a manageable level.

Children, however, haven’t learned many strategies to manage stress and anxiety, which is why they tend to fall apart in the face of stressful situations: having to leave mom on the first day of kindergarten, facing an intimidating child on the playground, dealing with too many children at a birthday party, having to face the consequences of not completing required homework.

When a child is anxious or upset, soothing them is a natural tendency. However, it is important to remember that helping children who tend to worry or be anxious develop a sense of responsibility and skills to cope with life’s challenges is the ultimate goal.

To help your child deal with fears or anxieties, first take a look at the role that the fears play in his or her life. If he or she expresses worry, but it doesn’t really limit him or her or change his or her behavior, perhaps the only response needed at this point is listening to the fear and letting your child know you understand. An example would be a child expressing fear of the dark, yet still being able to go to sleep without any problem.

Encouraging your child to talk opening about his or her fears is always the first step to acknowledging and helping your child manage anxiety. But if the fear bothers the child and prevents him or her from doing something he or she would like to do, then a stronger problem solving approach is called for. Teaching coping strategies, such as breathing slow and deep into the belly for 10 breaths and replacing negative, worrisome thoughts with reassuring ones can give the child a way to reduce anxiety.

Helping to plan a way to handle a feared situation should it occur can also help reduce anxiety. If spelling tests make your child nervous, practice until he or she knows the words cold. If a social situation is affecting him or her, problem solve and role play how he or she could respond. If the fears are connected with school, involving the teacher in supporting the child can make the situation less intimidating and more doable. Finding ways for children to manage worry promotes self-confidence and effective coping strategies in later years when the young people become adults.

For some children, fears or anxieties loom very large, affecting their life and the lives of those around them. Rates of more severe anxiety in children have increased over the past 40 to 50 years, which is no surprise to educators, who notice more children with fears that interfere with their learning. Studies have shown that the number of children and adolescents with clinical levels (high enough to affect their functioning) of anxiety and/or depression has increased by as much as 5 to 8 times over the last half century [1]. Anxiety problems represent the most frequent disorder of children and adolescents, and affect as many as one to two children in ten [2].

While the reasons for the greater numbers of children with anxiety aren’t known for sure, what is clear is that children may need help keeping their anxiety in check. If your child is avoiding school or other activities because of anxiety, or their levels of anxiety are creating problems for them or the family, it is important to get professional help. There are very effective treatments that can help children reduce anxiety, and the sooner they get treatment, the more empowered they will feel about solving their problems in the future. Resources for helping children with fear and anxiety problems, large and small, are available through Butte County Behavioral Health and numerous other professionals in the community. Your child’s physician may be able to direct you to someone who can help.

On the web, try these sites: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/intonline/anxiety_huberty.pdf; http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children; http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/the_anxious_child

[1] Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents: Developmental Issues and Implications for DSM-V; Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2009 September; 32(3): 483–524.

[2] Psychology Today, January 26, 2010 by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-dramatic-rise-anxiety-and-depression-in-children-and-adolescents-is-it

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