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Daniel B. Peters, Ph.D. Headshot

6 Healthy Habits To Teach Kids Who Worry Too Much

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WORRIED KID
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One of my favorite quotes is by Marjorie Hinckley, the author of the book Small and Simple Things. In it she says, "The trick is to enjoy life. Don't wish away your days waiting for better ones ahead."

It seems like an easy principle to live by, but in reality many of us live our days fighting the Worry Monster -- that constant internal voice that tells us we aren't doing enough, succeeding enough, gaining enough, earning enough. For our kids, this trickles down into fears like "I won't be able to pass my spelling test," "I won't do well in soccer practice" or "I'm not smart enough or cool enough for my friends. "

So how do we instill tools within our children to help them combat these universal and common anxious feelings? How can our children learn to live in the present rather than worry about the future that has yet to come? Encourage these six simple, practical and healthy habits for daily living:

1. Make a worry list.
Have your child make a list of all his or her worries and fears, both small and large. Just the act of recognizing and writing down worries can sometimes make the scary emotions seem less intimidating for your child. This allows you to identify which worries and fears you want to work on with your child, tackling one by one together.

2. Practice thinking strategies.
Help your children convert their worries into reassurances by teaching them new thinking strategies. For example, if their consistent worry is "I am afraid my mom won't pick me up from school," have them replace it with "I know my mom is coming for me because she ALWAYS does." Together, you can say each worry and fear and come up with new sentences to combat the old. Practice these with your kids until they become habitual replacements for the old, incessant worries. This is a key skill for building resilience.

3. Don't skimp on sleep.
Make sure your child gets enough sleep on a regular basis. Well-rested equals well-equipped mentally and physically to deal with minor daily stresses. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that 3- to 5-year-olds get 11-13 hours a night, 5- to 12-year-olds get 10-11 hours per night, and teens get 9.25 hours per night (although some do fine with 8.5 hours).

4. Make good nutrition a priority.
Make sure your child gets a steady dose of protein throughout the day. Many kids experience low blood sugar, also known as hypoglycemia. Low blood sugar usually occurs a few hours after breakfast and it looks and feels a lot like anxiety: they feel dizzy, start sweating, feel weak, and their heart beats really fast. Staying away from caffeine and energy drinks is also recommended as they mimic the effects of adrenaline and cause people to feel anxious.

5. Get some exercise.
Exercise burns adrenaline. If it's not already a part of your child's daily routine, add daily exercise to your child's plan, and let him know that not only is it good for his body, but it will help keep the Worry Monster away. Exercise can include any activities that your child enjoys such as swimming, shooting baskets, hiking, soccer, dodge ball, tennis, martial arts, jumping rope, rock climbing, bicycling, dancing, gymnastics or yoga. Anything that increases your child's heart rate will help fight the Worry Monster.

6. Don't underestimate distraction.
Arm your children with a little healthy distraction. Let them pick a favorite activity such as ten minutes on the computer playing a brain game, time out for reading a favorite book, watching a half hour television show or bike riding around the block -- and allow them to do that activity whenever a worry attack comes on. This allows them to combat worry with pleasure and takes their mind off the often paralyzing thoughts and feelings brought on by the Worry Monster. Before you and they know it, they have been distracted from their worries.

All of us experience worry and anxiety, but Worry Warriors know that the trick is to understand how the Worry Monster works, be prepared for his sneaky ways, tackle him head-on and not leave him lurking silently in the closet. We can arm our children to battle their anxious thoughts and engage in life -- and we can do the same. By maintaining these six healthy habits, your family can put their worries aside and experience life to the fullest in 2014.

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