Psychologist, Ivan Pickert has some advice for parents of worried children. Worry can be extremely upsetting for children as well as parents, with many of us not knowing what to do. Even worse, worry can almost seem contagious as we begin to worry if the worries of our child are normal. Ivan gives a great overview of worry in children as well as some advice on what you as a parent can do to help.
Everyone worries from time to time. Both children and adults experience worry, usually in anticipation of difficult, stressful, or even dangerous life experiences. Worries are cognitions or thoughts about possible threats or risks. Worrisome thoughts are associated with feelings of anxiety – an emotion that serves to help us avoid a perceived danger or prepare us to face it. In children it is normal for youngsters to worry about things such as an upcoming class presentation or about their first extended trip away from family, however, some children experience intense and debilitating worry about many aspects of their lives.
During the past 12 months approximately 3% of the population experienced debilitating worry, in Australian terms that is over half a million people. Debilitating worry often begins in childhood and adolescents and is the result of both genetic and environmental factors. There is no single cause of debilitating worry. For children who have problems with worry, worrying can be a highly distressing experience. Frequent and intense worry can also impact a child’s ability to function optimally at school, at home and in social situations. Children with excessive worry may worry about school, health status, other people, relationships, separation, events on the news… there are too many potential worries to list them all here, but you get the picture.
If a child is experiencing intense and persistent worry it can cause high levels of distress and anxiety for parents and adults associated with the child. Parents of a child who excessively worries often invest large amounts of time and effort trying to manage their child’s worry. Parents can also find themselves providing a lot of reassurance to their child and sometimes no matter how much reassurance is provided, the child still worries.
What does excessive worry look like?
As a quick guide, the following behaviours are common in children who experience intense and frequent worry:
- Repeated phone calls eg. to ensure a parent is ok, or if they are going to be picked up from school on time.
- Constant questions about unfamiliar events for example; What is going to happen, What if X happens?, What about X?.
- Strong reluctance to approach new experiences and/or people.
- Excessive reassurance seeking for example: Will you be ok?, Will I be ok?
- Difficulties going to sleep.
- Worriers often hold pessimistic beliefs about their ability to cope with situations or challenges.
- Physical complaints are common when a child experiences worry – stomach ache, headache, fatigue and difficulties with concentration.
Psychologists can help children and their families reduce the impact of debilitating worry. When working to help a child with excessive worry and anxiety, best results are most likely if the child, at least one parent/care giver and the psychologist work as a team to tackle worry. Working as a team enables the treatment activities to be best tailored to each child. If you believe that your child may be experiencing frequent and uncontrollable worry about many things, psychologists can offer evidence based options that have helped children who have debilitating worry.
The treatment for children who worry can include:
- Education for the child and parent on worry/anxiety – what causes it and how it is maintained.
- Self-monitoring and parent monitoring of the child’s worry
- Thinking strategies for managing worries
- Behavioural strategies
- Strategies to help with bedtime routine and reduce the effect of worry on sleep.
- Parenting strategies to help worrying children
If you believe your child may be having difficulties due to excessive worry, a psychologist can provide assessment and treatment recommendations for your child.