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Does your child worry too much?

“I just know I’m not gonna do well!” You might have heard this  around the house from a fretful child. If your child seems to worry excessively, there are ways to help.

Excessive worry is one of the most frequent problems children face. Paul Foxman, author of The Worried Child, says children with “beyond normal but less than severe anxiety” may be shy, withdrawn and inhibited. Sometimes anxiety is mistaken for depression, hyperactivity or physical illness.

Worry is often an irrational focus on unlikely events. “There is usually a discrepancy between reality and what children worry about. For example, car and bicycle injuries are more likely to occur than any other events in childhood, yet children seldom worry about having those types of injuries,” Foxman notes.


Common worries

For infants and toddlers, common fears include loud noises, large looming objects, strangers, separation, and changes in the house.

Preschoolers often fear the dark, noises at night, masks, monsters and animals such as dogs.

Typical worries for school-age children include snakes, spiders, storms, being home alone, angry teachers, failure, rejection, scary TV shows, injury, illness, doctors, shots and death.

Addressing the worry

Don’t dismiss it. No matter what your child’s age, Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, suggests discussing the fear with respect. Speak calmly and confidently without forcing the child to do more than what feels comfortable.

Explain what worry means. Ask your child to imagine he is a small animal (such as a rabbit) living in nature among predators. “When a vulnerable animal is threatened, it senses danger and hides until it is safe again. When it is safe, the rabbit relaxes and resumes normal activities,” says Foxman.

Separate anxiety from the child. Psychologist Dawn Huebner suggests teaching children to externalize worry in order to set the stage for taking control. “Think of anxiety as if it were a separate entity with its own name rather than an integral part of your child,” she advises.

Managing anxiety

You can often help children to break patterns of anxiety.

Encourage assertiveness. Chansky says kids can “boss back” the worry rather than being held hostage to it.

Kids' books about worries

• For emerging readers, consider sharing stories about overcoming fear. When My Worries Get too Big by Kari Dunn Buron teaches kids practical strategies to control anxiety.


Is A Worry Worrying You? by Ferida Wolff, Harriet Savitz and Marie LeTourneau addresses elementary-age worries humorously.


• Perfectionist tweens may benefit from What to Do When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough by psychologist Thomas Greenspoon.
 

Frame worry as a negative habit. Help an older child see worry as a habit she needs to break, not a reasonable way to think or prepare for events. Teach her to say “so what” and avoid all-or-nothing thinking.

Discuss perfectionism. Help a perfectionist to prioritize his choices based on urgency and importance,  says Foxman. Explain the difference between perfection and excellence (putting your best effort forward based on available resources).

Cultivate a “second reaction.” Says Chansky, “Managing worry means challenging the credibility of automatic thoughts and cultivating a strong second reaction — speed dialing that voice of reason, connecting to some truth circuits and in doing so, bringing that magnified risk down to a manageable size.”

Ditch feelings for facts. Replace dwelling on how awful something could be with how unlikely it would be.

Huebner reminds parents of worried kids to stay positive and project confidence: “You are moving toward the day where you will be able to say that your child used to worry too much, but not any more.”

Michele Ranard is a counselor, freelance writer and mom of two.

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