Worry, or anxiety, is a normal reaction to something dangerous in our environment. In fact, anxiety helps us avoid something that is likely to cause us harm. However, children may be prone to excessive worry and worry about events that are unlikely to happen. When such anxiety negatively impacts a child’s everyday life, a mental health professional my diagnose an anxiety disorder. At the root of anxiety-related disorders are worry thoughts.
This excerpt from the Note to Parents and Caregivers by Ara J. Schmitt, PhD, in Magination Press’s book, Mindful Bea and the Worry Tree, by Gail Silver, helps parents understand worry thoughts and provides a strategy for parents to help their children cope with them.
Understanding Worry Thoughts
Psychologists refer to worry thoughts as “cognitive distortions.” In Mindful Bea and the Worry Tree, Bea experiences at least five kinds of worry thoughts. Her first worry thought is:
Must or should thinking: thinking that things must or should be a certain way. For example, Bea thinks her birthday party must be perfect. This often can lead a second distortion, such as black-or white thinking.
Black-or-white thinking: an all-or-nothing way of thinking, allowing for no middle ground. Bea appears to believe that her party will either be perfect and everyone will have fun, or the party will be disastrous with unhappy guests. In her mind, it does not seem possible to have a disappointing hiccup along the way, but still a great party overall. The series of worry thoughts continues, when, as a result of these unreasonable thoughts, Bea appears to jump to conclusions.
Jump to conclusions: to form negative conclusions based on little or no evidence. Bea’s series of worry thoughts leads her to jump to the conclusion that her friends will call her names or not want to stay at her party if it’s not flawless. The worry thought that Bea appears to have most often is called catastrophizing.
Castastrophizing: expecting negative events to happen. Bea asks “what if?” repeatedly: “what if there isn’t enough cake?” “what if no one comes?”. This isn’t likely to happen, but Bea worries about every possible negative outcome. She’s able to do this because she is filtering.
Filtering: filtering out all positive thoughts and evidence in favor of negative thoughts. Bea filters out thoughts and evidence that her party will go well, like her experience at previous parties and her mother’s preparation for the current party, in favor of negative thoughts.
How Parents Can Help
Parents can explain that the body and mind are connected, and calming the body can help calm the mind. The worries can still be there for now, but the child can use their breath to help their body feel better. During the tense moments of worry thoughts, parents can lead their child through this simple relaxation exercise:
- In a calm, reassuring voice, prompt your child to put a pause on their worry thoughts. It can help to give them a concrete suggestion, such as telling their worries directly that they have something else they need to do for a minute, or picturing a stop sign to signal a pause. Then help them bring their attention to their breath.
- Next, ask your child to take in a long breath through their nose until their lungs are full.
- Then, have your child hold their breath for a short time. To the count of three will do.
- Finally, tell your child to exhale slowly through their mouth like they are blowing out a candle.
These steps can be repeated as necessary to reduce worry that is causing negative physical symptoms.
It’s useful for children to practice this exercise when worry is not present, as well, so that it is easier for them to switch their thoughts and attention when they are dealing with anxiety.
Parents can also take steps to prevent excessive worry thoughts from taking hold. Parents should be prepared to gently challenge worry thoughts and reinforce positive, realistic thoughts. To do this, parents can use the child’s previous experiences, or even talk through their own personal experiences with worry thoughts.
When to seek professional help
Parents often struggle to know when to seek the assistance of a mental health professional. If the focus of worry does not seem typical for a child that age, or if the worry is intensifying and spreading, the assistance of a professional is encouraged. Further, seek help if a child conveys hopelessness that their worry will never get better, or if a child expresses thoughts of self-harm. Disturbed sleep, panic attacks, unusual crying and clinging, persistent nightmares, bedwetting, and extreme avoidance of anxiety-provoking stimuli are also signs that professional intervention may be in order. In sum, parents are the experts of their child and know their child best. If excessive worry is disrupting your child’s life, seek assistance.
This is an excerpt from the Note to Parents and Caregivers by Ara J. Schmitt, PhD, in Magination Press’s book, Mindful Bea and the Worry Tree, by Gail Silver. The complete note provides suggestions for counteracting specific types of worry thoughts.
Related Books from Magination Press
Mindful Bea and the Worry Tree
Bea is anxiously waiting for her friends to show up for her birthday party. The worries start to grow around her life tree branches. She asks herself questions like, “What if my friends don’t like the games?”
Her stomach flip-flops and she feels shaky. She tries to run away from the thoughts in the worry tree, but it doesn’t work!
Bea uses deep-breathing exercises and visualization techniques to calm herself down.
Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers by Ara Schmitt, PhD, about the ways in which kids can respond to their anxious thoughts.