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Let's Talk About Children Who Worry

The human body evolved ways to handle fear and worry. Worrying can promote success, but when worries persist, physical and mental changes occur. Children experience different worries, yet few children talk to their parents about their worries. Parents and caregivers can help children talk about their worries, become more proactive and avoid ill health.
Our adopted son came to live with us when he was thirteen months old. He could talk, walk and climb stairs. He'd already lived with two different families, however when playing with his toy telephone or carpentry tools, riding his scooter, playing hide and seek with Mom, sitting on Daddy's lap to look at books, he seemed happy living with us. Days after his arrival, we took him to visit a couple whose little boy, Derek, was our son's age. Glum-faced, our son wouldn't play with Derek's toys; he only wanted to sit on my lap and watch. He remained subdued and quiet all the way home, but the minute we were inside our house, his face beamed. He ran back and forth from his toys to me for a hug. I realized that he'd been worried that he was again being moved to a new house. Even though he was so young, I should have pointed out that we were coming back, that his toy phone and scooter would be where he left them. I should have reassured him that we were his mom and dad forever. Children worry. Worry can bring beneficial consequences, but unresolved worry causes stress that affects our physical and mental health.

There's a reason for fear and worry. Fear signals the body to automatically prepare to defend itself against something potentially harmful. Take the caveman facing a lion. The caveman had three choices: fight, run or be eaten. His body responded to help him fight or get away by sending blood to his muscles, increasing the rate of his heartbeat, quickening his breathing and producing hormones to help him focus on his goal. Our human bodies evolved to handle fear and dispel worry using these same defense mechanisms, but in today's world, fighting may be counterproductive, and we can't always run from what frightens and worries us. When we can't dispel the fear or when we try to hide it, our defense mechanisms overwork, and the stress causes ill health.

Can fear and worry become productive? If the child who worries about his pending swimming meet practices, and if the child who worries about an upcoming exam studies, hormones help him focus on practicing toward meeting his goal, and the worry subsides. If a child hears about someone with cancer and worries that he'll get that disease, his parents can encourage him to do research about cancer and discover that he isn't likely to get it. Children who have good self-images learn to handle worry by being proactive.

What children worry about. KidsHealth conducted a poll among 1,154 children ages 9 through 13. ( D'Arcy Lyness, Ph.D. reviewed answers to the questionnaire and concluded that kids worry most about something happening to their parents. Lyness concluded that this was understandable, since children depend on those caregivers to fulfill their needs. A child worries if a parent has habits, such as smoking, which could be life threatening.

Using data from KidsHealth, Ondine Brooks Kuraoka, M.S.W., wrote in the San Diego Family Magazine that children age 9 through13 report worrying about "School grades, Looks or appearance, Problems at home...Nearly one-third of the survey participants fret over their future or being a failure or disappointing loved ones." A child's feeling of security is threatened when he hears his parents argue angrily. Children frequently feel that they are the cause of the family conflict and worry because they can find no way to mend the discord. Patterns of worry change as the child ages. Children pick up what their parents worry about--shootings, terrorism, war--events over which they have no control. ( Ondine Brooks Kuraoka-clips-What Kids Worry About) For more about KidsHealth search:

Signs of worrying. Kuraoka refers to Georgia Witkin, Ph.D.'s book KidsStress: Effective Strategies Parents Can Teach Their Kids for School, Family, Peers, the World-and Everything (Viking Penguin, 1999). Over 700 children under age 12, reported experiencing: "insomnia, nightmares, and stomachaches" as the top physical manifestations of worry and stress. From my experiences as a parent and teacher I'd like to add that brooding, withdrawal from participation in activities or being with family, angry outbursts and inability to concentrate are manifestations of worry.

What kids do about worries. Kuraoka wrote that "fewer than one in ten kids feel there is open communication with their folks, and fewer than one in ten parents feel the need for more communication with their children." When the KidsHealth study asked kids what they did, 25% said "talk to my parent(s)" or "talk to my friends," and 24% said "keep my own worries to myself." Only 9% said, "do something about what's causing my worries."

What parents, teachers and other caregivers can do. Talk with children, listen to them, discover misconceptions, read stories that show people handling problems and encourage children to tackle what worries them. Teach children how to recognize matters over which they have no control. Be careful not to put your own expectations onto your children. Keep children informed about impending changes in their family's life. Schedule time for relaxation, creativity and hanging out with friends. In the Toronto Star, February 3, 2009 Trish Crawford described a British study commissioned by The Children's Society and quoted Bob Reitemeier, CEO: "`Excessive individualism' is negatively affecting every aspect of children's lives, from home and school to leisure and friendships. Our society focuses on competition, `me first.' Many adults demonstrate `you can do whatever you want without concern for others...' We have failed to emphasize friendships, empathy and helping others." Doing something concrete for others helps children move outside of their worries. Children gain perspective and discover the good features of their lives.

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