My fifth grade son is anxious about all kinds of things. He worries that I might forget him at school (I never have), that a bee will sting him and he'll die (he is not allergic), or that our house will be swept away in a flood (we live where it hardly ever rains.)
It's scary to be young and dependent, more so when children are bombarded with accounts of every kidnapping, natural disaster or terrorist attack. Here are my thoughts about helping your anxiety-ridden son:
• Live with calmness. When something upsetting happens, our kids watch us carefully to figure out how they should feel about it. If we handle events like flight delays or thunderstorms with ease, they will be more likely to adapt our attitude as their own. If you or the significant adults in your son's life tend toward catastrophizing when things aren't going as planned, they may mimic that worrisome behavior.
• Limit exposure to the news. When adults see a report about a hurricane or a house that caught fire, we have the capacity to put the news in a larger context. Although we may find the news upsetting, we have enough life experience to know that these events are rare. Children, on the other hand, don't have a broad enough view of the world to put scary news into perspective. It is therefore crucial that we limit our kids' exposure to news stories that magnify fear and highlight scary imagery to draw us in more powerfully.
• Introduce your son to "Little Fear Guy." In my work, I have come up with an image that is very helpful to children. Tell your son that each one of us has a little "friend" named Little Fear Guy whose job it is to keep us safe. It is Little Fear Guy who shouts in our ear to stay on the sidewalk when a ball rolls into the street, and Little Fear Guy who keeps us from putting our hand on a hot stove. However, sometimes Little Fear Guy generates anxiety when we aren't actually in danger. Help your son learn to differentiate the true warning signals that Little Fear Guy sends, versus the ones that are based on stories created by our active imaginations rather than facts.
• Don't judge. When children present their worries to us, our natural instinct is to offer reassurance in an attempt to talk them out of their fear. Sometimes this can be helpful, but many times it backfires, because in our rush to convince our kids not to be afraid, we may come across as worried about their worries, reinforcing them! Saying, "That's silly! It hardly rains here -- it would never flood" will leave your son feeling ashamed, which may simply drive his worries further underground where they can become secretly more pronounced. Instead, encourage your son to speak openly about his feelings. "It sounds like you think about hurricanes a lot, sweetheart. Tell me more." By remaining a safe sounding board, the simple act of talking without being judged or shamed for his fears may help dissipate them.
By modeling calmness, letting your son talk about his fears, limiting his exposure to scary news and helping him learn about Little Fear Guy, he may be better able manage his worries. If not, please seek the help of a professional who can teach him some specific strategies for managing his fears.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the upcoming, Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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