Understanding Worry in Children

by Deborah Serani, Psy.D., author of Sometimes When I’m Worried

Worry is a type of anxiety. Children can get tangled in the circular thinking of worried thoughts at early ages. As adults, we can help little ones work through these difficult emotions. The first thing we need to learn is how to distinguish fear and anxiety.

Understanding Worry in Children

Fear is the first kind of anxiety we move through as human beings. It’s a here-and-now experience, where something in the moment presents us with discomfort. Whether it’s a loud sound, a breeze leaving us cold, a pang of hunger, or being alone and unattended, fear is a biological response to threat. Fear becomes a reflexive way for us to maintain a sense of safety.

For children, fear is a normal part of their development as they learn about the world. With encouragement and support from caregivers, most children can be soothed and learn to adapt to their fears.

Others, though, may become more fearful and focused on not something in the moment but something that could happen in the moment. This sensitive child takes the experience of fear and creates an anticipation of it, even if the threat isn’t there. And that is how worry develops.

To summarize, fear is experienced. Worry is anticipated. Fear is a momentary emotion that fades when the threat is gone. Worry, though, comes with a longer and more debilitating timeline for children.

Your little one is not just fearful of a dog in the park in real time. She is worried about if there will be a dog in the park—and then spends a lot of time thinking, worrying, fretting, and feeling anxious about that possibility. Because toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged children cognitively understand later, tomorrow, yesterday, and the future, worries can really deepen at this age.

When children worry, we can help them feel safe, find solutions, and manage their ruminating thoughts in the following ways:

1. Validate your child’s worry

Listen attentively to your child’s worry and support the thoughts and feelings behind them. It’s helpful to summarize your child’s worry in words to give it validity.

You’re worried you won’t make friends at preschool.” 
“You’re worried about falling off the swing.” 

When you say these phrases back to your child, you offer compassion and understanding and help them linguistically structure their worries.

2. Offer realistic comfort

The next step is to offer realistic comfort when your child is worried. This can be tricky because it’s natural to want to minimize any and all distress your little one is experiencing.

“Don’t worry, you’ll make a lot of friends at preschool.” 
“You’ll be okay. You won’t fall off the swing.” 

Reassurance like this can cause unrealistic expectations, and it sets the stage for failure. What if they don’t make a lot of friends? What if they do fall from the swing? A better approach is to be realistic about experiences.

“It’s scary to go to school, but you’ll make friends little by little.”
“Let’s go slow on the swings. And if you fall, I’ll be here to take care of you.

This approach teaches children to face their worries instead of avoiding them.

3. Reward brave behavior

Worries and anxiety are very uncomfortable experiences for children. Not every worry will be conquered in a one-off intervention. It may take time for a child to find that workable spot where the confrontation of the worry is greater than the worry itself. Praise attempts your child makes along the way.

“So proud of you for going to school today.” 
“High five for sitting on the swings, buddy.”
“Nice try.”

Every small step is cause for positive reinforcement.

4. Teach self-care skills

Self-care is an opportunity for children to feel in charge of their body and their mind. Learning how to self-soothe will make a child feel less anxious and more confident in managing stressful experiences.

Teach your child how to belly breathe; imagine a favorite, special place; stretch and move their bodies; listen to music; or cuddle in a pool of sunlight. Find what your child loves and have a set of skills at the ready.

Teaching a child to have a routine and create consistency is also a self-care skill. Self-soothing is a tool that reduces the hypersensitive fight, flight, and freeze system. When children learn how to care for themselves at a young age, they develop a life-long skill set.

5. Be a role model

Make sure to practice these tips alongside your child. Let them see you validate and confront your own worries. Show that you use self-soothing skills along the way, too. Praise yourself for brave behavior.

Another important note is to keep tabs on your own percolating anxieties. Children can pick up on your distress even if you don’t verbalize it. Check in often to see if you’re anxious, worried, or stressed yourself.

Deborah SeraniDeborah Serani, Psy.D., is an award-winning author and psychologist in practice for 30 years. She is also a professor at Adelphi University, and her writing on the subjects of depression and trauma has been published in academic journals. Dr. Serani is a go-to expert for psychological issues. Her interviews can be found in Newsday, Psychology Today, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and affiliate radio programs at CBS and NPR, among others. She is also a TEDx speaker and has worked as a technical advisor for the NBC television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She lives in New York City.

Deborah is the author of the Sometimes When collection.

Sometimes When I'm Sad  Sometimes When I'm Mad  Sometimes When I'm Bored book cover Sometimes When I'm Worried book cover

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