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Kids worry. It’s a natural part of childhood development. Kids can develop crippling worries about many things, from germs to vomiting to their parents dying, fear of the dark, getting a pimple, going to school or going back to school, a first sleepover party, can all cause worry or anxiety in children. The difference between normal worry and anxiety is the severity of the anxiety. Anxiety becomes a disorder when it interferes with your child’s ability to handle every day situations or avoid things that most people their age enjoy.
Worry exists on a continuum of response to a threat, biologically-based fear responses are on one end and the excessive rumination of anxiety disorders on the other end with worry in the middle as a cognitive system that anticipates future danger.
At birth newborns have an instinctual fear of falling. At around eight months babies develop a fear of separation once they’ve registered the comfort and security the adults in their lives offer. Three to six year olds become afraid of monsters, disasters, imaginary creatures, things under the bed, things outside, unfamiliar noises and the shapes of shadows. At eight a child’s cognitive development allows them to think forward to possible scenarios in the future, so their worries become more abstract and are more influenced by their environment.
Fears that don’t interfere with a child’s life may not need getting over. If your child decides he doesn’t like scary movies and is not going to watch, that’s a testament to his self-advocacy skills and standing up for his needs.
If a child’s fears are persistent, overly intense, or interfere with daily life, it might be more than just worry and time to seek help. Some signs that a fear may be something more include:
- Obsessive worrying or fixating on the object of the fear, talking about it often even when the trigger isn’t present.
- Fears that are limiting your child’s ability to enjoy life or participate in activities.
Some common childhood fears include:
- Being alone
- The dark
- Dogs or other big animals
- Getting shots or going to the doctor
- Unfamiliar loud noises
- Imaginary monsters or the thing under the bed, or in the closet.
Some children are more biologically vulnerable to worrying than others. They produce more cortisol and stress hormones in response to environmental stimulation. Following are some ways to help children reduce and cope with worry:
- Pay attention and listen to children
- Watch for indirect signs that children are wrestling with worry – themes may show up in play, physiological changes, disruption in routines
- Take fears and worries seriously, respond sensitively and don’t belittle or deny the concern
- Help children problem-solve
- Model good coping
- Shield children from excessive sources of worry
- Enjoy one another – play, exercise, blow-off steam together. Optimism, gratitude and pleasure help to build resilient brain architecture
- Seek help if children’s worry is excessive
How do we instill tools in our children to help them combat common anxious feelings and worry? How do we help our children live in the present rather than worrying about the future? Here are some tips for daily living:
- Make a worry list – list all worries large and small. Sometimes just writing down the worries can make them seem less intimidating for your child. This also allows you to identify which worries and fears you want to work on with your child and tackle them one by one.
- Practice thinking strategies – convert worries into reassurances. Instead of “I am afraid my mom won’t pick me up from school” replace it with “I know my mom is coming for me because she ALWAYS does.” Practice these with your kids until they become habitual replacements for the old worries. This builds resilience.
- Sleep – make sure your child gets enough sleep on a regular basis. Enough sleep helps you and your child be mentally well rested and able to deal with minor stresses.
- Exercise – exercise burns adrenaline. Anything that increases your child’s heart rate will help combat the worries. It should be fun and any activity that your child enjoys.
- Distraction – arm your child with a healthy distraction. Let them pick a favorite activity and allow them to do this activity whenever worry comes on. This allows them to take their thoughts off of the worry and replace them with something that brings them pleasure.
Self-regulation is a skill that can be developed to help kids start feeling braver. Self-regulating is essentially the ability to process and manage our own emotions and behaviors in a healthy way. This is what gives us the ability to talk ourselves down or the feel things without acting on them. In children, building self-regulation takes time, practice, and space to learn. As a parent you have to get comfortable with letting kids be a little uncomfortable as they figure things out.
The goal is to gently guide kids along until they’re ready. Help your child talk about what is frightening them. Asking specific questions can help when your child doesn’t have the words to explain their fear.
Validate your child’s fear and then move on. Let your child know you are taking him seriously but don’t dwell on offering comfort. Start talking about how to work together to help him start feeling braver and get to the point where he can manage the fear himself. Problem solve with your children to come up with a solution together. Resist problem solving for your kids and problem solve with them. By taking an active role, kids will learn to problem solve on their own.
Make a plan and work with your child to set reasonable goals. For instance, if you need to sit with your child until they fall asleep, your plan may look something like this:
- Night one: agree to read two books, turn off the light, turn on the nightlight and sit quietly until she falls asleep.
- Night two: read one book, turn off the light, turn the nightlight on, crack the door and be right outside the door, not inside the room.
- Night three: read one book, turn off the lights, turn the nightlight on, leave the room and close the door
- Night four: read one book, turn off the lights, leave the room and close the door.
Change takes time and fear is a powerful feeling. Be patient, consistent and praise your child’s hard work. Positive reinforcement and encouragement can help your child feel more confident. The younger the child the more times you may need to try things until they stick.
Keep things in perspective. Without minimizing your child’s fear, point out that many problems are temporary and solvable, and that there will be better days and other opportunities to try again. By teaching kids to keep problems in perspective can lessen their worry and help build strength, resilience and optimism to try again. Remind your kid that whatever happens, things will be OK.
Sometimes when kids are worried, they just need reassurance and comfort. A hug, heartfelt words, or time spent together can let kids know that whatever happens, their parents will be there with love and support.
If your child needs a little help maintaining an emotional balance, Native Remedies® can help. Native Remedies® MindSoothe Jr.™ has been specially formulated to support feelings of well-being, healthy self-esteem and emotional balance in children.
MindSoothe Jr. is an all-natural, non-addictive herbal remedy formulated specifically for children’s emotions. It supports the brain’s natural ability to regulate mental and emotional health in children – maintaining production of essential brain hormones and chemicals related to nervous system health and emotional well-being, thus supporting balanced mood and behavior.
Some children are born with a predisposition for worry, and their emotions can go through ups and downs in the normal course of events. However, even a well-equipped child may battle child emotions and inner struggles due to life circumstance. Also, children may not voice their concerns – or have the vocabulary to do so – meaning that mood changes could be the medium for expression of their emotions.
The demands faced by children in today’s world make it more important to help them to maintain emotional and mental health and to bring them up in a secure and loving environment.
BY MARY ELLEN