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I wasn’t surprised when I read this write up about how parents tend to underestimate how much their kids worry. I see this play out a lot in therapy. Parents will talk about stressors for the family and when I ask how the kids are handling it the parents will often say something like, “Oh she’s OK, she doesn’t really know about it.”

I get this because I’m a parent, too.

I think it’s a little bit of survival mechanism, an instinctive move to put on our own oxygen masks first. If we’re dealing with a big move or a divorce or a job lay-off, we can get pretty overwhelmed. Having to think too long and hard about how it’s affecting our children may be more than we can handle, at least until things have settled a bit.

But then things settle and maybe parents still aren’t ready to face the fallout.

The other scenario is that parents just don’t believe that children are developmentally able to worry. Those parents either don’t remember their own worries or they internalize the idea that their worries weren’t important (because that’s what their own caregivers said).

Preschoolers, especially, worry a lot about things that don’t seem that scary to parents. This is the age of monsters in the closets and under the bed. Parents may get frustrated when kids are scared of imaginary things but it’s developmentally appropriate, which means that for most children it’s a stage they’ll eventually grow out of.

Meanwhile parents can help by offering reassurance over and over again (checking the closet with a flashlight) and believing kids when they say they’re scared. Sure, we might not get what the big deal is about the bridge you drive over everyday to get to preschool but ot your child it is a big deal. Accepting this and helping them cope (perhaps by going to the library and getting a book that talks about bridge construction and how much thought goes into creating safe roads) will help more than dismissing their concerns.

As children get older, their fears about imaginary things decrease but their concerns about real life things (fires, robbers, car accidents) increase. You can help them out by listening, showing them the precautions your family takes to keep everyone safe, and giving them coping mechanisms like relaxation breathing or visualization. These are lifelong tools that will benefit children into the teen years and beyond and they will help your child feel more confident about his or her ability to conquer worry and manage it appropriately. (Preschoolers can benefit from relaxation and visualization, too.)

You can also help by modeling productive ways to handle our fears. It’s ok to let your children in on some of your concerns provided you are working towards a solution. For example, you can say, “I feel worried about grandma’s surgery but I know she has really good doctors and I remember to tell myself that when I’m feeling scared.” Or “I’m getting a new boss on Tuesday and I’m a little nervous about it so I’m going for a walk to help me relax. Want to come with me?”

How do you know if your child is worrying too much and could use some help from a professional?

  • Are you overwhelmed by their worrying? Do you find yourself getting frustrated or angry?
  • Is your child having problems getting enough sleep for his or her daily activities? Or having frequent nightmares?
  • Is the worrying getting in the way of your child or your day-to-day activities?
  • Does your child worry weeks or months ahead of an event?
  • Do your child’s worries spiral from small and manageable to huge and unmanageable?
  • Do your child’s worries lead to compulsive or perfectionist behavior? Does your child need to check that the stove is off over and over before he can get to sleep? Or is she afraid to leave your side for fear that something terrible will happen to one of you?
  • Does your child have physical symptoms like headaches or stomaches related to worrying?
  • Is she unable to attend everyday events like school or scouts due to worry? Or to take care of everyday activities like getting homework done or cleaning a room because of his perfectionism?

If you’re not sure, you can schedule a time (with me or with a therapist in your area) to talk about what’s going on and see what counseling might have to offer you or your child.

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