Do you have an anxious child?
Evan comes into our room, his little fingers twisting the blond hair by his face. “Mom?” he asks quietly.
“Yes Evan?” I stare at the clock. It’s 11pm and he is still awake.
“What will happen if I’m late for school tomorrow and miss the field trip bus?”
Is your child a worrywart?
Evan is our little worrywart. I recognize all the signs of anxiety in him, because I myself struggled with anxiety my whole life. Natural disasters, death, sickness- you name it, I worried.
What makes your child’s fears abnormal?
Here is the crucial point to remember about childhood anxiety: while most kids worry about the same things, anxious children struggle to cope and manage their fears. A laid back child will have a scary dream, and within a day or two- forget about it. An anxious child will have trouble going to sleep at night for days and weeks, worrying about the possibility of another nightmare. The subject they worry about is very normal- it’s the coping skills (or lack thereof) that signal your child needs some extra help.
Books for parents of worrywarts
How do you support a child who is anxious when they begin to worry about these common fears?
1. Fear of losing Mom and Dad
Simply telling your child it’s not likely that this will happen- does nothing to alleviate the fear. You will need to be a bit more creative. One of the best ways to combat this fear is to give your children the opportunity to bond with other adults. If he feels like you are the only two people on planet Earth who can care for him, the anxiety will only mount. The truth is that he knows you can’t promise that you won’t die, so rather than minimizing the fear, you can try this-
“I know you are afraid of Mommy and Daddy dying, but that is probably not going to happen. I want you to know though that if something happened to us, Grandma would take care of you.”
You can explain the process and hopefully he has a solid relationship with a grandparent or other family member so that he would be reassured by the fact that someone he loves would be there for him, even if you could not.
2. Fear of a fire or some natural disaster ruining his house or belongings
If your child is old enough for simple math, you can have a discussion about the statistical improbability of this happening. However don’t use other bad things to combat his fear of natural disasters! You will just have given him something new to worry about. Instead, take small steps to help him feel in control. If he is worried about fire, put one of those stickers on his window and create a fire emergency plan. You and him can create a little “emergency” kit with a flashlight, batteries, water, band-aids, etc. so he feels like he has some control over something that is uncontrollable. Visit the fire department or police station so he can understand how people can help him in a difficult situation.
3. Fear of being late for school or some event
You may have to take a look at your own patterns of timeliness. Are you often late yourself? If so, his fear may not be unfounded! If however, you are the kind of person who is on time, set an alarm clock by his bed so he knows it’ll wake him up. Tell him you will do the same, and prepare the night before with his backpack, lunch, etc. Remind him that even if he were to be late, you both would figure something out and it will be okay.
4. Fear of being bullied
Kids want to know they are strong and capable. If there is bullying happening, get involved immediately with the school, counselors, and the other family. If however your child is simply worried about it in the future, you can take this approach. Give him a plan for the playground. Make it very clear what steps to take if he is in a compromising situation. Many anxious children are afraid of getting in trouble, and feel that they couldn’t get out of a situation where they were being picked on. If you give your child permission to (for example) push someone away physically IF all the other tactics don’t work, that extra boost of empowerment may alleviate his fears.
5. Fear of bad grades or getting in trouble
Fear of failure is hard on worrywarts. Trust me, I know! Rather than hiring a tutor, or scheduling more homework time, reassure your child that failure is okay. A bad grade or detention will not minimize your love for him, and he doesn’t need to be afraid of imperfection. Next time he fails at something, take him out for ice cream, just to show him how his world can be “okay” even when he’s done something wrong. The truth is most kids who worry about these things, rarely experience a bad grade or detention!
6. Fear of germs
This one is difficult, because your child may refuse to do fun activities or touch something that another child has touched. Since there is so little one can do to prevent germs and sickness, learning to be okay with illness is one of the toughest fears to overcome. Again, I would ask you to do a self-check. Are you anxious about germs? If so, there may be a lot more caught than taught. If you are not one to obsess, educating him will help. It's a fine line though- too much education can fuel the fear. Sometimes relieving the pressure of constant vigilance over an invisible enemy is the trick. Educating him about all the ways his body works to fight and heal can help.
7. Fear of not being able to sleep
Insomnia breeds more insomnia. First things first, you need to break the cycle. If your child has struggled to fall asleep for several days in a row, you can give him some “sleepy” medicine (Benadryl). Psychologically, the pressure is off the child to figure out how to fall asleep and usually the child is knocked out before the medicine even has a chance to kick in. Once he’s gotten a good night’s sleep, try these tips:
- Create a bedtime routine
- Turn off all devices, TV, or even books that stimulate him
- Take the clock out of his room so he can’t obsess
- If time is ticking away, reassure him with the promise he can sleep in (even if it is only a few minutes), because he’ll feel less pressured to fall asleep quickly
8. Fear of heights
Don’t try to make your child not afraid by sticking him on top of the monkey bars. This fear is difficult to overcome, and you may have to wait until he is older. Yes, he might miss out on the class zip-lining field trip, but if he feels like he disappointed you by not conquering his fear, it’ll only add to plaguing doubts of your love for him. Try not to project onto him your own feelings, and let this one go.
9. Fear of dogs
This fear can be managed through education about animals and small baby steps of exposure. Start with a book at the library, and work your way up to a visit at a pet store to observe animals through the glass. Go to a park and watch a dog from a distance. Do not force your child to take steps he’s not ready to take, but at the same time- do not make a big deal out of his fear. By doing so, you simply give him reason to think he’s supposed to be afraid.
10. Fear of getting lost
If your child is old enough for one, giving him some sort of device with built in maps and GPS solves this fear immediately! But he is younger, you can have a little map reading lesson. Teach him about street signs, dialing 911, how to remember his address and phone number, and other useful tips for getting around. Reassure him by building skills that ensures this isn't likely to happen. Don't make grand sweeping statements about how you'll never lose him. Making yourself more important and "god-like" only fuels anxiety, because he cannot truly control when you are and aren't with him. He must learn to feel safe within himself.
The bottom line
Anxious children need tools to feel empowered. They need reassurance that failure is okay, and that others in the world will help them when they need it. There is a fine line between ignoring a fear (which will not help) and remaining neutral about his fears (which will). You want to give them a sense of control where they can have it, and a healthy understanding that where there is no control, things are going to be okay.
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