Is My Kid Worrying “Too Much”?
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
Hello! You must be concerned about your child if you’re here to skim this post - I want to welcome you and thank you for your caring heart. Today I’m going to spend some time talking about “worry” - this is also sometimes called “nervousness” or “anxiety.”
What is Worry and is Any Worry “Normal”?
It’s totally typical for people-- kids included-- to experience worry at different times in their lives. For example: first day of school jitters, the butterflies in your stomach when you invite your classmates to your birthday party and hope they show up, or the concern around the mystery of what goes on at a dentist visit. As you visualize those scenarios, you may remember your own childhood with similar challenges and nervousness. These small blips of worry are developmentally appropriate based on the situations at hand.
It’s even okay to worry on a more frequent basis. Those “gut feelings” of nervousness can actually protect us! Our ancestors would use these feelings-- also called “instincts” and the “fight, flight, or freeze response”-- to keep themselves safe. They would listen to the fluttering in their stomachs or the quickening of their pulse, knowing that it meant they should seek shelter, stay away from certain animals, etc. We need those same instincts to protect us in life-threatening situations, such as when we’re out camping and encounter something scary or when we’re driving and need to quickly evaluate a jam-packed traffic situation.
Sometimes our brains send those anxious feelings even when there is no threat, however. We may feel as if we need to fight someone or flee from them without there being actual danger. For a child, this could be when they get called on in class; they may go silent, hide under their desk, or verbally explode for seemingly no reason. Maybe they respond to a request to wash the dishes by throwing a plate or freezing up; the anxiety of not remembering the steps for that task could overwhelm them.
When worry becomes “too much” is different for every child and their individual levels of stress tolerance, the effectiveness of the coping skills that they know and can use, and the ability of their environment (and those in it) to adapt to the youth’s needs.
There is a general rule of thumb I use to help determine if the worry level is currently “too much.” The question is this:
Is the worry affecting their Quality of Life?
“Quality of life” refers to the overall well-being of your child and their daily experiences. So a child that has a great quality of life may be happy in many realms. To determine your own youth’s quality of life in relation to the amount of worry they currently face, ask yourself the following:
Are they so worried that it’s (more often than not) hard to calm back down?
Does their nervousness prevent them from doing things they really want to do or trying new interests?
Is the worry causing them problems going to sleep or staying asleep at night?
Is anxiety stopping them from making or keeping friendships?
Do they spend a good chunk of their day focused on things that are bothering them or may happen in the future?
Are worried thoughts interrupting their focus during family time, fun activities, or school work?
If the answer to any of these are yes-- and if the answers to most of those questions are yes-- your child may currently be experiencing a high level of anxiety. This could feel like “too much” for them and cause their brain to go into overdrive.
So What Can Parents Do to Help?
As a caregiver, there are many ways you can help lower this anxiety level! I’m going to list and explain my 5 Favorite Ways to start decreasing worry for your child.
Calm Down Time: Put this into your child’s daily routine. During this time, you and your child will focus on being “in the moment” instead of focusing on past or future concerns. Spend some time together in a safe space and do something calming. (Depending on their age, you may want to start with 5 minutes and build up to 10 or 15 minutes. Teenagers may benefit from 20 to 30 minute bursts of this Calm Down Time in one sitting.) Find your child’s interests and use those to determine what happens during this time. Maybe it’s listening to a free guided meditation or short yoga lesson on YouTube. Perhaps they’d benefit the most from working on a project with you, such as creating slime or a “cool down jar”/”sensory jar” (instructions also available on YouTube.) Some kids enjoy going outside and climbing a tree, running or walking, or otherwise burning off energy. You may find a small nap in cozy blankets or with stuffed toys is what suits your child the best.
Worry Book: One way to get worries out of our heads is to put them into writing or drawings. You can purchase a sketchbook or notebook that becomes the designated Worry Book, where your child spends 10 minutes a day writing out or drawing what’s on their mind. If they want it kept private, that’s okay - but they also may choose to share these worries with you. This is not necessarily a time to problem-solve with them, but instead to let them get those worries out of their heads.
Physical Exercise: Especially if this is not your child’s favorite way to calm down, this can be an important element to include in your kid’s daily routine. Ensuring that they have a physical outlet is important, as worry can sometimes create a nervous energy inside of us that needs to get out! For some kids, this could be running laps, riding a bike, rolling/somersaulting, or swimming. Others may like to sit and pop bubblewrap, chew gum, or tear paper. Find what seems to benefit your child the most and incorporate it daily.
Sleep Routine: Creating a good sleep routine (also called having “good sleep hygiene”) is extra helpful if your child struggles with getting rest at night or sleeping through the night. Turning screens off an hour before bed, doing activities that calm them, and keeping worry out of the conversation can be useful in creating a safe space for sleep. Investing in positive books (or checking them out from the library) for bedtime reading is one way to keep the brain thinking happier thoughts. Verbalizing, drawing, or writing a “gratitude list” (things they are grateful/thankful for) is another way to shift their focus. If you find that your child is extra worried at night, it may help to create a 10-15 minute worry processing time earlier in the evening (like the Worry Book idea earlier or even a conversation around worry.)
Model Worry: As their guardian, you are their role model (whether they say so or not!) They soak up your attitudes and behaviors like a sponge. It’s important to check in on your own worry/anxiety levels. How often do you mention your concerns? Do you find yourself talking about them over and over? Are new ideas told to you and you often say “but…” and bring up a worry? Do you find yourself telling your child to “be careful” or not to do certain things, then explaining all of the things that could go wrong? Are you able to make a mistake and shrug it off or do you find yourself focused on being as perfect as possible? Aim to create an environment where your child sees you worry less yourself. Talk out the process of worry sometimes when it may benefit them: “Gosh, I was worried about meeting your new teacher, but I remembered that you said she was nice - I decided to be brave, take a deep breath, and meet her. And you were right! It was okay for me to be worried and I still did what I needed to do; I didn’t let it stop me.”
What If They’re Still Very Worried?
If you’re finding it hard to implement those suggestions, if you need extra support, or if you have tried these and they’re still not decreasing the worry enough for your child to have a great Quality of Life, there are other steps you can take! One next step could be to reach out to a professional for help. Therapists-- especially those of us that are Child Mental Health Specialists-- are well equipped to help families in decreasing anxiety for a worried child. You are not alone! I would love to hear from you and meet to see if I can help.