There have been a lot of events lately that could evoke worry and anxiety: the tragic and sudden death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and friends; fears of coronavirus; and an uprising in Iran, to name a few. I know a lot of adults who have been stressed out about these events, so it’s not surprising that kids also may be worried.
Part of what stresses out parents is that they don’t know how to respond when their kids come to them with their worries. Depending on the child’s age, parents often are the first stop when they’re worried. This is why how we respond is so crucial.
Last month, I covered why giving blind reassurance often is unproductive and works only in the short term. What we want to do is help our kids get used to the reality that life is uncertain and that there’s always a possibility something could happen, but the probability is low. Spending time and energy “trying to be 100% sure” about something is largely futile (and it’s going to make their anxiety and worry worse).
Let’s look at this in terms of current events and the recent fears about coronavirus (or any illness):
“Stop. This is silly. You have nothing to worry about.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“Just wash your hands more.”
“Track where the cases are, and you’ll see that you’re not at risk.” (You don’t want to encourage anything that could lead to more research and false reassurance.)
“I hear that you’re worried about this, and it sounds like your worry is running the show. When that happens, you start to think what’s possible is probable. While getting coronavirus is possible, it’s not probable. Can you think of other times in your life when your worry has played this trick?” This helps them see worry’s pattern and recognize it for what it is.
Teach your child that if they focus on the fear, the fearful thoughts and feelings grow. Remind them of a mosquito bite they may have had (or hives or some other kind of itch) where, if they resisted the itch, it went away, but if they started to scratch it, it itched even more.
You also want to help them see that worrying about something didn’t lessen their anxiety (in fact, the opposite probably happened). Their feared outcome (getting coronavirus) didn’t come true because they worried about it or sought reassurance. It didn’t come true because the relative risk is low. Even if they do get sick, chances are it’s not coronavirus, so there’s still good learning they can get from it.
Whether your child is worried about an everyday life occurrence, a tragedy that’s happened in their sphere of influence, or a current event, the same 5 steps can help parents lead them through it. The more kids learn how to approach their worry and anxiety, the stronger their ability to work through it becomes.
While reassurance temporarily feels satisfying, it actually strengthens worry and anxiety, and it teaches children to rely on their parents (or friends or future partners) to feel better. What we want is for them to learn that life is inherently uncertain and that it’s OK to be “sure enough” about something. When we’re anxious, being “sure enough,” feels distressing and unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean it is. It just means we need to increase our tolerance (and willingness) to feel uncomfortable. Luckily, these days, there’s plenty of opportunities to practice stepping into this mindset.