When children are little, they worry, but may not understand why. There may be no logical evidence to support it, but it is real to them, nonetheless. It is real enough to provoke a real nervous system response. Worry is anxiety.
It sometimes surfaces with a barrage of questions that seem to come out of nowhere. I remember one evening when my 5-year-old son started asking, “What if the chickens didn’t want to give their feathers away for people’s pillows?” “What if they get really cold because they have no more feathers?” “What if they come looking for their feathers and want them back?” “What if they’re really, really mad?” He had certainly worked up a good deal of anxiety about this. The next morning, when I came out of my bedroom, I saw his pillow on the floor, outside his door.
Our first response to something like this is always reassurance, followed by trying to invoke logic. When this doesn’t work (it seldom does), we become frustrated and give the child the message (through words and body language) they’re being silly and need to move on.
Let’s think of some of the knee-jerk comments we make to children who are anxious.
“Trust me. It’s going to be OK.” When a child is immersed in anxiety, his body is responding to his mind and saying this isn’t going to amount to a hill of beans. As a protection mechanism, the stress response is hard-wired into our nervous system. It enables the fight or flight reaction to any threats we may encounter. Worry or anxiety can trigger this response. Stress hormones are dumped into the body and it shifts into survival mode. In this situation, thinking clearly is highly unlikely and words of reassurance are pretty useless. A better response would be a warm hug or even some rocking, helping him calm down. This can move the mind and body back to a more restful state.
“You have nothing to be scared about. I don’t understand why you’re so worried.” Anxiety sets off a fear alarm and even if it’s a false alarm, it feels very real. The mind can even over-exaggerate the object of the worry, causing disturbing sensory perceptions. What we need to do as adults is reach back to a time when we experienced real fear ourselves. Remember what that felt like. Then, validate the child’s emotions. “You’re scared and I’ve been scared before, too. I know what that feels like.”
“Let’s talk about all the reasons why you shouldn’t worry.” A child who is anxious can’t think logically or focus on anything else but his strong feelings. As the fight or flight mode kicks in, the pre-frontal cortex- the more logical part of the brain- gets put on pause, while the more automated, emotional brain takes control. Instead of rattling off a string of reasons not to worry that aren’t even going to be processed at the moment, it is far more productive to try a visualization exercise together. Ask the child to close her eyes and visualize a still and quiet place. Ask her to take in a deep breath and then breathe out. Ask her to describe what this place looks like. Once the child is calm, it may be possible to have a simple discussion about how sometimes feelings aren’t always necessarily facts.
“Stop this. You are just a worry bug.” Research tells us that children who worry know they are more anxious than others because they have been labeled from an early age. They start comparing themselves to others who seem to respond to the same kinds of fears much less intensely. As a result, some children develop worry about being worried. Then, on top of that, add some guilt and a label from a parent or teacher and the child can feel completely miserable.
The response sequence of reassurance, explanations, and frustration is completely normal. As educators, as parents, as care providers, we want to alleviate worry expeditiously with all the best intentions. Instead, step back. Think a little deeper about what’s going on inside that worried little person and try to remember how you felt when you were worried and nobody could seem to understand it. That’s the place where the real help and calm comes from.