Your little worry wart

Is your child a habitual worrier? Everyone gets worried at times, but some children seem to worry more than others. Home & Family counsellor, Anya Godwin, talks us through ways to help your worried child.

One of the most common ways a worry starts is after your child has seen or heard something scary, perhaps on the computer or TV or in a book; has been told something to frighten them by another child, or adult; or has seen something scary in real life. Sometimes a worry gets started when a child imagines something awful might happen to them or to someone they love. A worry can also start if they hear somebody saying something that seems weird or if a friend is unkind. If they think the scary thing is real (even though it can’t be), worries get stuck in their head.

Some worries are normal, such as your child being worried about going to hospital or having to give a talk at school. Such worries will disappear once the thing that worried them has passed – the hospital trip or the class talk is over – or where simple reassurance enables the child to move on. For example, a child may worry about their parents dying, but can be reassured that this is not likely to happen for a long time. Whereas problem worries are those that are more deep-seated, stay in the child’s mind or keep recurring.

how worries affect children

Worries start as thoughts and they can affect your child’s body and behaviour. Children may stop wanting to do normal things, such as play with friends, or go on sleepovers. They may not want to talk to you about their worries. Some children may do the reverse and keep asking lots of questions about a certain topic. Others may say they are feeling sick, without apparent symptoms, and others may go quiet.

1. get it clear

If your child is reluctant to talk about what is bothering them, or too small to tell you clearly what is going on for them, you may like to get them to do some drawings or writing. You can help your child to identify what is worrying them and what feelings they are experiencing.

Get them to write down their worry, draw it or say it clearly out loud.

My worry is …………………………………………………......

Write down or draw the times and/or the places where and when your child most often has the worry.

I have my worry most ….....(when).....… and .….…(where)......

Scale your worry from 1— 5, using the scale on the left.

2. identifying feelings

Feelings are a big component that come with worries. Identifying these feelings is another important aspect in helping your child. Ask them to tell you what they are feeling (eg: scared, sick, butterflies in tummy, nervous, heart racing, etc). Older children could write them down and circle the main feelings that they get with their worries. With younger children, you may be able to recognise which of these feelings seem to be strongest. You could use these words as prompts to find out how your child is feeling.

3. know what is real

Clarity and reassurance are the key responses here. Helping your child know what’s real is about helping them recognise not only what is real and what is not, but also about giving reassurance. It involves helping your child not just with the facts — such as that even if things are real, bad things happen very seldom; or that what they have imagined might happen, can’t really happen in real life — it’s about helping your child to gain perspective about what is bugging them. But it is also about helping them to deal with the feelings that they have developed in relation to their worries. For pre-schoolers, reassurance is the main response that they will need. Older children could be asked to write about what they know is true about their worries.

4. near and dear

Having someone your child can confide in about their worries is another strategy that can be useful.

Where worries are deep-seated, some children may need to talk out their worries a few times before they can move on from them. Have them identify someone they can go to for this. Say that their time is limited to 10 minutes. Listening closely and kindly are the key tasks for the listener as they guide the child through steps 1 and 2 again.

5. get into gear

Help your child to identify what things help them to feel calmer or help them step back from experiencing their worry. Doing something tactile, such as having a cuddle, stroking an animal, looking after the family pet, or having a warm bath, can be a physical thing to do that is calming. You could also suggest your child do something that gets them moving in other ways and thinking about other people or things.

6. plan to steer

For older children with habitual worries, making a plan that they can use and come back to at times of returning worries is the final task. Help children to talk or write about their ideas for what helps them work through their worries.

Should your child’s worries persist or start to interfere with normal life, it may be helpful to have your child see a professional counsellor.

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