I was recently asked to try to go back to my own childhood and try to remember the things that I worried most about when I was young. Closing my eyes, it didn’t take me long to channel my inner child and generate a robust list of worries that ranged from, “my basement” to, “an intruder” to, “everyone in the house falling asleep before me.”
“Shall I keep going?” I asked. Worrying was a full time job for a bit when I was a kid. I distinctly remember the day my third grade teacher called me a, “Worry Wart” in front of my entire class. Sobbing to my mom that night it was clear that the teacher’s attempt to poke some good natured fun at my worry was NOT helpful in making it any smaller. “Now I am worrying about being a worrier!” I cried. The irony was not lost on me but didn’t provide any solace.
As I got older my worries changed in both shape and size, and my responses to them changed as well. I worried less about the basement but more about who I was, how I related to others, and who I wanted to be. Some days these worries felt manageable, other days overwhelming. Luckily I had parents and mentors who helped me handle my worry so that I could live my life instead of fearing it.
It’s not always obvious how to respond to stress in children. All kinds of things generate worry in kids and teenagers alike. Where does worry come from? How do we distinguish between typical worry and anxiety? What can we do to help kids handle it?
Stress in children: Why does the brain worry?
Here’s the good news. In many ways, worrying is one of our human superpowers. Worry causes us to scan our environment for potential threats, anticipate what might go wrong, and consider responses that will minimize harm.
Worry is such an important function, that instead of it being controlled by just one part of the brain, it is part of an entire “fear network” that keeps us alive. Though the exact pathways are still not entirely clear, one simple way to think about it is that worry is an ongoing balancing act between our alarm brain and our cognitive brain. For example, if a child is still a block away from their bus stop and hears the rumble of a bus behind them, their activated alarm brain might go off, telling them “RUN! You are going to miss the bus again!!” Ideally, their cognitive brain will calm this response with a thought like, “The bus doesn’t come for five minutes,” making the last block a much more enjoyable walk.
The challenge is that we are capable of doing all kinds of long range, abstract thinking. So in addition to reacting to potential threats or missteps that we actively sense in our environment, a fear response can be triggered when we are planning, imagining, or predicting uncertain outcomes in uncertain futures. These fears can range from a preschooler wondering, “Will my parent come back at the end of the day?” to a middle schooler wondering, “Will the planet be okay?” and everything in between.
The worry that emerges from thoughtful planning about an uncertain future is not always bad! It can help kids prioritize, focus attention and prepare. For example, the worry that you might not be prepared for a tough exam might motivate you to study. The worry you have about the climate crisis might motivate you to join a student group to take action.
When worry and anxiety don’t go away
Unfortunately, the same threat detection network that keeps us alive can also keep us from living. We don’t want to ignore stress in children that overwhelms their ability to cope with it.
Some children and teens worry more than others, partly due to the way they are wired. In addition, some have a lot to worry about, from economic instability to the effects of racism. Finally, while social media may not be the sole cause of anxiety, it can certainly fuel the fire for some teenagers. When typical worry turns into an anxiety disorder, worry tends to take over everything and doesn’t respond well to our attempts at cognitive control.
But what about those typical worries? What does healthy worrying and recovering look like?
Seven Ways to Help Children and Teens Handle Their Worry
Worry-free is not the goal
The goal is not to take away all of the things that cause even mild stress in children but to help them handle it. Avoiding everything that causes your child concern can inadvertently make them more anxious. Of course throwing them in the deep end doesn’t help either. The art of helping children handle worry is finding the correct dosage for your child or teen. It is helpful to remind your child or teenager that experiencing stress and anxiety is a part of being human and that handling worry takes practice. For more strategies, check out our roadmap to raising resilient kids.
Help your child or teen distinguish between stress that is, “just right” and stress that is, “too much.” For example, when you talk about “just right” stress, you might help your child brainstorm the ways that worry can actually help them move towards their goals.
Be on the lookout for the less obvious faces of stress in children
There are certainly children and teens who approach their parents with a clear and succinct, “I’m worried about _____.” But there are lots of ways that worry can manifest itself that are far less obvious (and sometimes less empathy-inducing, as well). For example, young children may try to take control of their worry through aggression. Older kids might claim that they are doing, “Fine!” but start quitting things, dropping classes, or avoiding things that are causing them angst.
Before jumping to address the symptoms, learn as much as you can about the cause of behaviors that are challenging.
Don’t minimize fears but don’t amplify them either.
While saying things like, “But there is nothing to worry about!!” or, “Don’t worry!” or, “I’ll do it for you!” might feel good to grownups, it rarely helps a worried child or teen. Instead, communicate that you understand what they are feeling and express your confidence that they will find their way through it.
Try, “It’s hard to not know how things are going to turn out today, but I’ve watched you prepare for this and I know you will be able to handle it however it turns out. I’ll be here if it feels too overwhelming.” Or, “I can see that you are really worried. I am here to help you get through it.”
Avoid “pre-purchasing worry” for your child
Worrying about your child’s worry is easy to do. If, for example, swim lessons have been a nightmare, adjusting to a new teacher has been difficult, or school deadlines have felt insurmountable, it is often difficult for parents to manage their own anxiety around similar events. That said, let your child or teen guide the experience and give them the gift of a fresh start.
Instead of, “Are you still really worried about the test coming up?” Try, “How are you feeling about the test?”
Teach your child or teen to get to know their worry and their recovery
Some young people panic because of their worry. A school social worker I spoke with last week said that she is seeing more and more students come into her office convinced that they have anxiety disorders. While some students absolutely fit and benefit from that diagnosis, some are assuming that because they are experiencing worry, something even bigger must be wrong. In other words, they are worrying about worrying.
Author and parenting expert Lisa Damour suggests talking about worry and anxiety as a “wave” rather than a fire. Children and teens need to discover that much of the time, anxiety approaches, peaks, and then passes. Learning to trust that the intensity of feelings doesn’t last forever is a helpful tool for stress recovery.
Help your child or teen build a toolkit for riding the wave
Just because waves of anxiety are normal doesn’t mean there aren’t tools children can use to calm the surf. You can introduce children to a variety of stress recovery skills including:
- Play, movement, exercise
- Cognitive assessment: “Is this a little worry, a medium worry, or a big worry?”
- Cognitive assessment: “What do I have control over right now? What do I not have control over right now?”
- Self talk (e.g. “Hello worry! You can go away now!” or, “I know that this feeling will not last forever.”)
- A switch to an activity where children experience competence, mastery, or control. This could be reading, playing with a pet, legos, drawing, playing with tape, mindfulness app, writing, advocacy groups, etc…
- Sleep. The surf always get rougher on low sleep. Implement a tech curfew.
Don’t ignore the difference between typical worry and an anxiety disorder
While we don’t want to amplify typical worries, we also don’t want to ignore signs that our kids might be wrestling with an anxiety disorder. When feelings of intense fear, panic or emotional distress overwhelm your child’s ability to do everyday activities, an anxiety disorder may be the cause. Children and teens who never experience relief from their worry and whose worries persist need extra support.
Name the social systems and barriers that cause worry and stress.
Research shows that racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice are sources of toxic stress and ongoing worry for children and youth. Caring adults can help children make sense of these stressors and buffer them against their worst effects. When we ignore these systems, it makes it more difficult for young people to build a toolkit for handling them and changing them.
Be sensitive to and validate your child’s feelings of anger, sadness, or fear as they cope with discrimination and stereotypes. Name and celebrate the strengths of your family and child’s cultural identity. Help your child learn that their identity and cultural practices are available to help them handle worry and cultivate joy.