This past year has caused some spikes on the worry-o-meter for most of us, including kids.
Parents have noticed an increase in fear-based behaviors and are reaching out for ways to support their children in challenging times. As a childhood worrier myself, I wish my younger self was taught some of the mindfulness resources that parents have access to today. There are many healing strategies parents can use to support kids (and themselves) when they notice anxious thoughts and actions taking hold and beginning to affect daily life.
Worry can take many forms: A gregarious and outgoing child can have a crippling fear of insects. A risk-taking toddler may experience dramatic separation anxiety when it’s time to say goodbye at childcare. A quiet, shy child may hide behind parents, be afraid of germs, loud noises, strangers, dogs and the dark. I still have vivid memories of my grade school worries; I would feel sweaty and nauseous, ball up my fists and shrink into myself any time I passed strangers on the way to school, got poor marks on an assignment, was singled out in class, or arrived somewhere late. I also remember lying awake at night, afraid to be alone in the dark.
Normalize Fear and Worry
Use a mindfulness perspective to help children see their worries as real, valid and a normal part of being human. Talk about their worries and help them understand that their response to fear happens both in their body and brain, with thoughts that may seem alarming. Teach them that, when something causes them to feel afraid, their body reacts by giving them a big burst of energy so that they can think fast, run to safety and “fight” the things that scare them. Different events or thoughts may cause it to happen, but everyone in the world has a similar fight/flight response.
Like All Feelings, Fear Flows Through You
Make sure kids know that their fear is a feeling, like happiness and sadness, that comes and goes depending on what’s happening around them. You can help them develop an emotional vocabulary using posters and books that help kids identify what a feeling looks like in others and themselves. With practice and attention, they will be able to identify sensations in their body when a specific emotion comes over them. For example, when angry they may feel heat rise to their cheeks or forehead, clenched fists or tunnel vision. Happiness may feel light, relaxed and smiling. Worry may feel like a buzzing in the chest or like shrinking into yourself.
When you notice worry come over your child, help the child identify it, feel it and notice when it has passed. If it seems to take some time to move through, use tools like breathing, moving, snuggling, being in nature, reading, eating or drinking to help shift the energy.
Embrace the “AND”
It’s key for kids to know that they can be brave, courageous, strong, AND worried. All of these emotions can happen all at the same time. Even as adults we can be rigid in assuming that if we feel something it excludes all other feelings. However, we can be angry and also feel gratitude. When we are suffering a loss, we can also feel joy and support. It’s quite common for kids to feel nervous, and excited, and courageous.
Emotions Don’t Define Us
At times our emotions can be overwhelming, but they don’t define us and we get to decide how we act in response to our feelings. Kids of all ages can learn new habits and ways of responding if given age-appropriate strategies. The next time you notice your child is feeling fear or worry, share that you see it and that you’re there in support. Ask questions that can help children learn to care for themselves: What actions would help you feel safe? What words would help reassure you? They may know exactly what they are needing, or you may want to provide some suggestions you think might help.
What They Can Do
When it comes to specific, recurring fears, it’s best to focus on how kids can take action and create a plan. Avoidance is common for worriers, but avoiding fears can create a disruption to normal functioning. It’s common for fears over school drop-offs, putting one’s head under water, taking tests, or flying in an airplane to increase to the point where families are walking on eggshells and canceling life plans. However, you can support your child in confronting the fear that flows through them.
A common concern for my clients is when kids who are afraid of the dark avoid their room, their bed and sleep in general, which causes the whole family’s well-being to decline. In this case, I have parents remind kiddos that it’s normal to feel afraid of the dark, even adults do at times. They can teach their children a four-part plan to get back to sleep in their own bed by themselves: 1) Go potty and get a drink. 2) Cozy up in bed and snuggle a toy. 3) Sing a favorite bedtime song three or four times. 4) Go get a parent if you still cannot rest so they can help you do steps 2 and 3 again. Kids may need a few nights of parent coaching from the doorway, but typically reviewing the plan at bedtime helps and they sleep through the night.
Use Reading Resources
I have found that reading books with kids about worries is a great way to talk about concerns without putting them on the spot or making them feel insecure about their fears. “Ruby Finds a Worry,” by Tom Percival is a powerful book for helping kids see that worries are normal and that talking about them with a caregiver helps shrink them. For parents needing additional resources, the book “The Opposite of Worry,” by Lawrence Cohen, is an excellent resource and uses playfulness to combat childhood fears. “Helping Your Anxious Child,” by Ronald Rapee and others, is an incredible step-by-step guide for parents wanting to support little worriers more confidently.
I’ll be honest, the best part about discovering and using these anxiety resources with my clients and children has been the application to my own life. We adults also get stuck in fear and worry, so it’s really helpful to remember to feel our own feelings, get support for ourselves and let them flow so they don’t compound and begin to affect our abilities and confidence.
Petterson lives in Moscow with her husband and their two children. She left public education to become a yoga instructor, sleep specialist and mindful parenting educator. She can be contacted via her website at www.kristinepetterson.com.