Eckhart Tolle nailed it when he said, ‘Worry pretends to be necessary, but serves no useful purpose.’ Anxious people all too often believe that they need to worry about certain events so that they will be adequately prepared for every eventuality, but this is a fallacy – worry actually saps our mental strength, and pessimistic people have been proven to be less able to handle disasters than optimistic people.
Yet, some children seem to have been born more anxious than others – just as other children were born quick-tempered and others were born placid. So, some of our little’uns need extra encouragement to try the high bar or jump into the water (while other children need to be taught how to become more cautious). This rarely causes a major headache during the toddler years, when parents can generally swoop in and fix everything for our kids; but as the children become older, so their problems become more complicated – and less easy to solve.
The good news is that just because your child has an anxious disposition, doesn’t mean that they are doomed to forever being terrified of every new experience. Thankfully, there are certain strategies that parents can teach their anxious children, to help them overcome their worrisome natures.
Some children find it helpful to use a worry box. This can be a box or a notebook where the child can write down their worries for a set time every day (or record them on the phone, if writing doesn’t suit). This means the child is free to worry – it comes naturally to them anyway – but you are no longer enabling them to worry excessively. And so, when they fall into their long established habit of worrying mindlessly about some minor event, you can kindly remind them to keep it for their worry box tonight – or alternatively, they can choose to write the worries down as and when they have them. The power of the worry box is that it doesn’t take much time for the worrier to realise that 99% of their worries never come true.
A personal checklist can also be made up with the child that they can check every time they worry. This checklist can ask questions such as: ‘Am I in danger? Am I worrying needlessly? Am I ruining my fun? Can I distract my mind? What will help me right now?’ This can be effective for children, as it forces the child to use their rational mind when their emotional brain is threatening to overwhelm them.
It is helpful for the anxious child if parents can acknowledge and accept their anxiety but also maintain a reasonable perspective on the anxiety, so as to prevent the anxiety from taking over completely. If the anxious child has anxious parents, then the problem is often exacerbated needlessly; the child may become anxious about monsters under the bed – a fairly normal fear and nothing to worry about excessively – but the anxious parent becomes overly worried about their child’s anxiety and so over-reacts to the child’s worries. Now, the child becomes really anxious as they fret that if their parents are so worried then there really must be something to worry about. Of course, the anxious parent over-reacts to this as well, and so it goes on and on.
A more supportive response to a child’s anxiety would be for the parent to be thoughtful about the general tone that is set in the family home. Is the tone happy? Or stressed? Or irritable? A sensitive child will easily pick up on the atmosphere; and so if you are concerned that your child is anxious, then perhaps you need to commit to changing the general atmosphere in the house. The good news is that if you commit to reducing anxiety in the household and set about creating a more positive atmosphere in the house, then you will inevitably be happier yourself.
It’s really horrible being anxious, and it is important to model self-compassion for your children. Many children feel bad and guilty for being anxious, so it’s important that parents don’t make their children anxious about feeling anxious! Far better instead to make our children feel ‘good enough’ – not perfect, because that would only make them anxious – but ‘good enough’ in our flawed and eternally human way. Because good enough is good enough.