Many parents have reported that their children worry much of the time. The worries may be specific involving concerns about school performance or peer acceptance or they may vague in nature, taking the form of a repetitive preoccupation with something bad that may happen. Very often kids are unable to articulate the source of the latter worry; yet, it is unmistakably strong, persistent, and may appear at points of separation like bedtime that make it difficult to go to sleep.
Parents who have attempted to field these worries by reassurance have frequently reported that while this may sometimes be effective, it is just as often ineffective or temporary. For example, a parent may try to reassure a child that there is nothing to worry about and that nothing bad is going to happen to the child or to them (the parents). Nevertheless, one bright youngster replied, “How do you know?” In fact, we do not know for certain about many things and just as kids at around age seven discover that their belief that their parents are all-powerful and all-knowing is not accurate, kids are often not convinced in their parents ability to predict the future. Kids know that parents are not endowed with super powers and they do not know all.
For kids who need a high degree of certainty in order to feel comfortable and safe, this is a devastating discovery as is the fact that uncertainty is more common than certainty in this complex world. Kids who think too much paradoxically find comfort in their worries at the same time that they are tortured by them. This is because repetitive or obsessive worrying performs an adaptive function by binding powerful impulses that drive the worry. For example, some kids who worry about something bad happening are really struggling with their taking action on their own angry emotions. Worrying holds these emotions in check and the price to pay is that these feelings are directed inward as anxiety.
This is why parents’ attempts to dismiss worries via reassurance often fall short. Dealing with worries is made more difficult because kids who worry induce worry in their parents and often feelings of frustration and anger as they tire of hearing the same anxious thoughts over and over. In order to constructively address kids’ worries, adults must first be willing to tolerate hearing them-sometimes repeatedly. Worries signal that something is amiss and adults need to take the time to try to understand their meaning.
Rather than solely giving reassurance, parents need to consult with their anxious children to understand their worries and to collaborate together and how to address them. Consulting communicates a genuine interest and an invitation to kids to be a partner in figuring out what to do. While concrete strategies like isolating worries in a worry box that contains them may prove to be useful adjuncts, they need to be accompanied by a willing ear. Worries may need to persist for awhile before kids are able to give them up. However, something first must be put in their place. Moreover, even when a worry is extinguished, kids who worry tend to generate additional worries, making the task of regulating worry an ongoing task necessitating patient consultation to understand before a strategy is created and implemented.