What if the teacher calls on me in math? Do tornadoes happen here? Why does Daddy look upset?
These are some of the thoughts that may cause anxiety for our kids. As adults, we worry about our routines, new circumstances, and the unknown. Our children are no different. They experience feelings such as excitement, grief, anger, relief, and worry, plus so many other emotions, just as we do – in the context of daily life.
We experience these emotions, worry or anxiety in particular, based on what we see, hear, and sense, and how we put all these pieces of information together. It is in this attempt to understand or make sense of changing routines, circumstances that are confusing, or understanding new information that children often become worried. They begin to fill in the blanks with details which may be inaccurate. For example, a young person may observe his father’s absence at home at night and worry that his parents are divorcing. A child may attend a funeral of an adult and begin to wonder if her mother’s recent flu will result in death.
These holes in available information may lead to a more complicated story line that is fueled by worry. It is possible that the father’s absence is due to taking on a second job. The mother’s flu is just that, and her health is improving. Adults must be attuned to children to observe and respond to symptoms of worry, providing information to keep wrong details from taking a child down an unnecessary path of worrying.
To be in touch with our children, we want to look for cues that let us know they are worried. Situational anxieties can be motivating (I better study for that test tomorrow!) and can help someone be alert, focused, and able to perform a task well. When anxiety moves beyond motivating to causing negative symptoms for children, we need to address the worry right away. Try these responses to your child’s worries:
• Notice and ask about worries expressed in behavior changes, mood changes, distraction, or irritability: You don’t usually yell at your brother like that. Is something bothering you?
• Normalize reactions to situations which may start worries and offer support and direction: I know you have been watching the news about the weather and looking out the window a lot. I am paying attention to the storm, too, and got extra groceries on the way home today. Why don’t you get some books and games out so we can have fun things to do while the storm comes and goes by us!
• Be aware of and respond to a deteriorating presentation: When I came in your room last night, I know you were crying again, but trying to hide it. I heard you up most of the night, too. You have been avoiding leaving the house to be with your friends. Let’s talk and come up with a few ways to change things. If I’m not the right person to talk to, let’s figure out who is.
A partner to being responsive as a parent is monitoring your own behavior as a role model. Be aware of your own anxieties and reactions, and allow your child to see you notice and come up with solutions to alleviate your own worries. This teaches your child skills and helps him feel more comfortable seeing you in control of the situation.
Worries are one of the many feelings we all experience. As parents, we can notice, respond, and even ask for help and professional guidance if needed, keeping worries on the short end of the feelings list.