When children struggle with worries it can feel impossible to know what to do for the best, do we talk about the worries? Is talking about them making them worst? Is there a risk of talking about them too much? Too little?
Whilst worries are completely normal, when they become excessive, or a child is worrying about ‘what if’ or worst case scenarios then it can begin to encroach on every aspect of life. So, whilst we may not want to give them too much attention, they cannot be ignored either.
What causes worries?
Worries are created when our body perceives a stress or challenge. In this situation, our body releases a hormone called adrenaline which creates the ‘fight – flight –freeze – faint’ response in the body. This creates a number of physical and emotional feelings in the body which warn us that there may be a potential threat of danger or risk. However, in some situations there is no actual threat but our body sends out the same reactions. This can create worries for children which range from:
- Mild– minimal impact on their world
- Moderate– may prevent some activities or interactions
- Chronic– having a far-reaching effect on opportunities and interactions
Worries may be started by core situations which occur at home or school, which create a chain reaction, that in the future the brain releases adrenaline as it wants to avoid a similar situation occurring. For instance;
- Past experiences at home – e.g. separation, divorce, moving to a new house
- Experiences of abuse or neglect
- Experiencing or witnessing domestic violence
- Difficulties at school – e.g. bullying, learning challenges, harassment
- Friendship issues – e.g. loss of a friend, bullying
- Transitions or several transitions
Triggers to worries
Triggers to worries are far reaching and impact every child completely differently. Some common triggers can be:
- Changes to routines
- Changes to main carers
- New sibling
- Separation or divorce
- Stress at school
- New situations or events
- Disagreements or fall outs with friends
- Loss of friends or family members or pet
- Busy or crowded places
- Hearing or watching media/news which is upsetting
- A catalogue of events which cause upset
- Witnessing or experiencing challenging or aggressive situations
- Ongoing stress or stressful events
- Being too busy – overwhelmed
Signs of worries?
Children will experience different symptoms indicating that they are worried. These can include:
- Complaining of tummy aches
- Frequent trips to the bathroom
- Complaining of headaches
- Feeling nauseous
- Complaining of racing heart
- Breathing is fast
- Panic attacks
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fixating on a worry
- Needing constant or frequent reassurance
- Avoiding events or situations which they previously enjoyed
- Avoiding particular people or places
- Becoming tearful or fretful
- Not wanting to leave a trusted adult
6 steps to supporting worries
- Validate don’t criticise –whilst it can feel that a child’s worries are extreme and unfathomable, to them they are real and very scary. Validating their worries and accepting that to them they are, at time, debilitating is the first step to supporting them. This may be through spending a short period of time together writing their worries down so that you can make a plan for them or look at them from a different perspective. This also supports children to look at the worry in black and white (without their imagination helping) so they can talk about it from a new angle.
- Talk about them in daylight for a short period –worries can easily take up a whole day, and frequently children will talk about them at night and subsequently they take over the whole evening and disturb sleep. Talking about worries can help children to make sense of them, or put them into context, but this is best done by sitting down together for a set period of time (e.g. 15-20 minutes) and writing their worries down and examine each one for evidence or solutions. Avoid bedtime talk of worries, and instead use this time for regulating activities e.g. an audio book, hypnotherapy audios, meditation music or reading so that bed is a time for calm and peace.
- Develop problem solving skills –helping children to develop their problem-solving skills can support them to rationalise their worries. Simply saying ‘yes I know it worries you’ does not help them move through the worry. You can consider questions such as 1) what evidence is there that this is true? 2) what else might it mean? 3) how else could we look at this? 4) what is the possibility of it happening? 5) what is the most likely outcome? 6) is there a more positive way we can look at this thought? 7) what would you suggest to a friend with this worry? 8) could we turn it into something positive?
- Grow resilience –when children’s resilience levels are higher, they can find it easier to move through their worries. Resilience is grown by supporting children to develop their problem-solving skills, encourage them to solve their own problems, take risks and chances and encouraging them to ask for help. When we always do things for children, or take over we can prevent them from finding their own solutions, or resolutions to challenges, which can mean when they are faced with a challenge alone they are fearful of making the wrong choice, making a mistake or that it will all go wrong.
- Learn the emotions– worries are a way that our body tells us that something is wrong. If children can recognise the feeling and label it, they are more able to find a way to resolve it. For instance, a worry may indicate that we are scared, upset, jealous, threatened, embarrassed, humiliated, nervous, insecure….. if we learn to recognise what those emotions are, what they mean and how they feel in our bodies, children are more able to talk about them and find solutions or remove/resolve the triggers rather than needing to just worry about them.
- Get moving –exercise releases endorphins in the body which feel good and reduce stress. Using our body and mind with purpose can also reduce our worries and improve our well-being. Regular exercise and daily activity, therefore, are vital to supporting children’s physical and emotional health.
When do we need wider help?
If worries are not shifting, have been occurring for a longer period of time (more than a few weeks) or are increasing in their intensity you should seek medical advice.
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