Is My Child…A Chronic Worrier?
Elise’s parents describe her as a “chronic worrier.” She always tries to please others. If she does not go out of her way to help a friend, she is often left feeling disappointed. She will often ask her parents, “What if she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore? Should I have done something different? Why doesn’t she like me?” Elise’s parents are concerned that her constant worrying is starting to eat away at her. They have noticed that she is more irritable, has crying spells several times a week and sometimes complains of stomachaches before school.
Like Elise, many children have worries. They worry about getting good grades, about conflicts that are happening at home, about making friends or even about getting sick in front of others. Some children have fears about real dangers in their lives, such as a fear of being a victim of a natural disaster or of being kidnapped by a stranger. Most of the time, these worries can be managed and dealt with through the support of parents and other adults; however, some children’s worries, such as those described by Elise’s parents, may take on a life of their own.
When children’s worries get so intense and uncontrollable, they can turn into Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Children with GAD often have symptoms of anxiety and worrisome thoughts that last more days than not for a period of six months or more. Similar to Elise’s experiences, children may struggle with feeling “on edge.” They may have difficulty concentrating and sometimes experience headaches, stomachaches and dizziness. Parents also notice that their children may frequently seek reassurance and validation in effort to ease their worrying thoughts.
It is very easy for children with GAD to “trick” their brains into reactionary patterns of thinking. Sometimes their perceptions of situations and experiences may become clouded and therefore they may develop unrealistic expectations, experience negative emotions and/or catastrophize by assuming worst-case scenarios. For example, in Elise’s case, her brain may trick her into thinking that if she says or does the wrong thing in front of her friends, she may lose all of her friendships. Other children may believe that if they do not do all that they can to make their parents happy that they may end up getting a divorce.
Fortunately, there are several therapeutic approaches, including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Children, which can teach them ways to rewire their brains so they worry less and feel more confident in being able to take control of their anxieties. Children can work to change their belief system by using facts within their environment to investigate their underlying worries. By gaining more information and recognizing how their “old” beliefs may negatively influence their experiences, they can then make “new” choices that will eventually guide their thoughts, feelings and actions down a more positive path.
There are many great techniques that children can learn to manage their GAD more effectively. Some children find it useful to create a funny nickname to label their worry, such as “Mrs. Worry Wart” or “Worry head.” They then use the nickname to describe their worry in a more relatable way to the parents or other adults. Other children may use “Power Talk” in effort to tell their worries to “Go away” or “Don’t bother me anymore.” Many children engage in “worry time” to get all of their thoughts and concerns out into the open. They may do this through journaling or by having a conversation with a close relative or friend. Once worry time is complete, they can then imagine entering into a “worry free zone” so they do not have to dwell on their anxious thoughts or feelings for some time. Children also enjoy utilizing certain relaxation and mindfulness exercises to help them calm their minds. By breathing in happy thoughts, they can learn to feel more calm with each inhale and let go of negative thoughts with each exhale. Some children even enjoy being mindful by taking nature walks or by doing yoga poses.
If you think your child is suffering with symptoms related to GAD, and you do not know what to do next, then it may be helpful to seek out a consultation from a psychologist or counselor. Through ongoing support and guidance, you and your child can find ways to grow and be successful, rather than be hindered by “Mrs. Worry Wart” all the time!