How normal is worrying? Recent research by the mental health charity Place2Be found that almost two thirds of 10-11 year olds worry "all the time". This would therefore make worrying a very 'normal' experience for children. Older generations may wonder if they worried as much at such a young age, and, with the beauty and softening of hindsight, may conclude that theirs was more carefree, due to a more simple, less technology-driven, childhood.
I would argue that worry is an emotional experience felt at times by all children; past and present. There are generation-spanning concerns; such as worrying about family well-being and friendship difficulties, that persist across these generations. However, I believe what has changed over the years is the content of the worry.
The overarching fears may remain the same across generations, however there are factors that may aggravate the intensity or content. A simple example of this may be a child's fears about 'monsters', this fear has existed over millennia, however the content of these fears may be affected by exposure to images of 'monsters' projected into our children's lives through unwanted pop-up ads, YouTube videos or by wandering off websites into an unintended website. Likewise, worrying about one's appearance is not a new phenomenon, but the exposure to images of 'perfect' has increased due to the amount of platforms that children can access, such as music videos and social media.
Being aware of this change, of the external world affecting the internal world at high speed, helps parents to understand better their child's worries. Imagining being a child in this world, a world where exposure to worrying news isn't restricted to watching the nightly 'News at Ten' but can invade life via a friend's mobile phone at any unsuspecting moment, where an acquaintance is able to take a photo of you and post it without you even knowing or where you can see accidentally see confusing images of porn or violence when searching for a movie online. Trying to imagine living in this 'exposed' world, leads us to understand how children can feel 'on-edge' and live with an unease which manifests in anxiety and worry.
It isn't my aim to be the voice of doom and gloom, or to lead a movement where parents throw away their children's mobile devices. Instead my aim is for us to build an understanding, as understanding allows us to empathize, which then allows us to listen and discuss these pressures on our child's level. We may not have the answers or means to change this system, but we can meet our child in the middle and say 'I'm know it's hard, I'm here."
Acknowledging this pressure for our children is a good thing to do as parents; for example, to say to our child, "Wow, everywhere I go there's a lot of talk about GCSEs at the moment, have you noticed that too? How is it for you to hear about it all the time?" You may be met with an eye-roll but at least you've opened the door to the issue.
Normalising worries is an important next step. It's quite difficult to resist the natural urge to jump in straight away and solve the worry. Saying 'I can see how that is really scary for you," or "I understand why you're worrying about that." makes your child feel normal. As opposed to a response of "Don't be silly!" or "You shouldn't worry about that" which can lead a child to believe they are different to others - increasing the worry!
Take a deep breath when you hear worries, repeating back what you've heard. Try and be aware of what happens internally for you when you hear a worry, do you want to go into 'fixing' mode or do you panic yourself if the topic is something that worries you too? For example, your child may say "I'm worried that something bad is going to happen to you/mum/dad/granny," hearing this may lead you to internal sensations of a twisted stomach, butterflies and then unwanted thoughts/memories. Just try to notice these sensations instead of getting carried away by them.
Action is worry's worst enemy (-Proverb)
Other things to consider -
Be mindful of how you model 'worrying' - talking to your child about worries is okay, but it is important to show how you can cope with worries too. Also, remember that there are adult worries that aren't appropriate to share with your children.
- Don't worry about saying the 'right' thing, just listen!
- Encourage your child to think about creating a 'Mental First Aid Kit' - what soothes your child? having a bath? music? colouring in? watching a movie? talking to a friend? going for a walk? They can build a bank of activities that they can turn to when worried.
- Create a list of worries with your child and get them to sort them into worries that they can take some action over, worries that actually belong to someone else and worries that will probably never happen.
- Help your child think about a small step they could do to take action on those worries that they can influence and to loosen the hold of other worries that they can't control through talking, sharing worries and by soothing themselves with calming strategies from their 'Mental First Aid Kit'.
I wish you all the best as you take a step to help understand and support your child with their experience of worry.
- Helen Decardi-Nelson