Winning the Worry Wars

Stephanie M. Kriesberg, Psy.D.

Stephanie M. Kriesberg, Psy.D.

By Stephanie M. Kriesberg, Psy.D. , Licensed Psychologist

Recently I was driving to work and realized I forgot my iPad. Since I had some extra time, I decided to turn around, go home, and get it.   On the return trip, I saw the line of traffic that had backed up. Construction!    An accident!  “Don’t do it!”  said a worried voice in my head. “If you keep going, you will get stuck in that snarl of traffic on your way back to the office.  You will be late.”  That worried voice made a lot of sense, I thought. It was trying to help me.  So I turned the car around again and got to the office on time.  And really, I managed just fine without my iPad that day.

Sometimes, the worry voices we hear in our heads can really help us out.  Worry can help us make good decisions, stay safe, and encourage us to work hard and do our best. But for many children and teens, worry stops being a helpful signal, a sign to slow down and think things through.  Instead, the worry voice becomes a screeching tyrant, convincing kids that disaster lurks at life’s every corner.

For example: Since the summer’s thunderstorms, 10-year-old Lily is afraid to sleep in her own bed at night.  She worries:  “What if it thunders again? What if it wakes me up?  What if something bad happens?”  Lily’s parents have taken to standing guard by her bed until she falls asleep.  Most nights, she winds up in her parents’ room anyway, asleep on the floor.

For Colin, age 8 (not to mention his parents) homework time is torture.  Colin is an endearing, industrious boy who wants to get everything just right. If he stumbles on a math problem, tears are sure to follow.  He wants to please his teacher and is certain she will be upset if his homework isn’t perfect.

Fifteen-year-old Nicole, rising star softball player, feels so sick to her stomach the night before every game her parents are starting to wonder if she should keep playing, as much as she loves the sport. “If I strike out, everyone will laugh at me. Coach wants us to make it to the play-offs.  I need to make every hit a homerun,” Nicole laments.

Each of these young people has a worry voice that has taken residence in their heads and does not want to vacate.  Each of them could benefit from being taught several basic principles about worry and its management.   Worry is part of life.  We have to expect it.  However, we have to figure out when our worry voice is helping us, providing useful information, and when that worry voice is full of hot air and doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

In their book Anxious Kids Anxious Parents Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons describe steps parents can take to help their anxious children.  Parents, like the ones described above, often feel powerless in the face of their children’s worry.  They spend their evenings hovering by their children’s beds or talking their frantic kids through every possible calamity.  No one feels better.  Worry wins every time.

Worry can be brought down to size when children and teens are taught that anxiety is expected and predictable.  Reid and Lyons (p. 59)  write that for most kids anxiety shows up in the same five types of situations over and over.  Anxiety tends to show up when kids are:

  1. Trying something new

  2. Unsure about plans

  3. Have lots of “what if” questions

  4. Have to perform

  5. Anticipating something scary

If your child or teen is struggling with worry, try the following exercise.   First, divide a piece of paper into two columns.  On one side, write the five conditions that tend to create anxiety.  Ask your child to think about which of these situations tend to create anxiety, and write them in the other column. Try to get as specific as possible. Your child will probably see that she does not get anxious in all types of situations.  There are plenty of times when she feels calm and brave. That realization itself is empowering and reassuring.

Second, go back to the situations in which your child experiences anxiety, when his worry voice is chattering in his ear.  Teach your child to picture his worry voice as something outside of himself.  Teach him that he can talk back to that worry voice and let it know what’s really true.  Have fun with this step!  Kids can be kind to their worry voices.  Lily might say: “Thanks for warning me that there might be a thunderstorm tonight.  It’s true,  I hate the loud noise, especially when I’m sleeping!  But I know it’s not dangerous, and I can handle it.”  Colin could reassure his worry voice:  “Listen, worry, I know you are trying to help me with my homework.  But my teacher is really nice.  If I can’t get this math problem, she wants to know so she can help me.  Trust me, nobody expects me to be perfect.”   Kids can also talk tough:  “Listen, worry.  I have had it with you,” Nicole can inform her worry.” Making mistakes is part of being an athlete.   My job is to play the best I can, not listen to your nonsense. So take a hike.”

Finally, when your child begins to worry again, before immediately reassuring, tell her:  “That sounds like worry talking to me!  What can you say to it?”   Over time, your child or teen can learn that worry is part of life, but it doesn’t have to run the show.

 

Stephanie M. Kriesberg, Psy.D. Is a licensed psychologist who practices in Lexington.  She has twenty years’ experience treating children, adolescents and adults.  Her areas of specialty include parent guidance, anxiety disorders, and treatment of adult daughters of narcissistic mothers.

 

Parenting Matters is a collaboration between the Colonial Times Magazine and the Town of Lexington Human Services Department. This column is not intended as a substitute for therapy and the contents are do not necessarily reflect the views of the CTM editorial staff. The information contained in Parenting Matters is for general information purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for the advice of a mental health professional.

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