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Helping Kids Handle Worry

Kids don't have to pay bills, cook dinners, or manage carpools. But — just like adults — they have their share of daily demands and things that don't go smoothly. If frustrations and disappointments pile up, kids can get stressed or worried.

It's natural for all kids to worry at times, and because of personality and temperament differences, some may worry more than others. Luckily, parents can help kids learn to manage stress and tackle everyday problems with ease. Kids who can do that develop a sense of confidence and optimism that will help them master life's challenges, big and small.

What Do Kids Worry About?

What kids worry about is often related to the age and stage they're in.

Kids and preteens typically worry about things like grades, tests, their changing bodies, fitting in with friends, that goal they missed at the soccer game, or whether they'll make the team. They may feel stressed over social troubles like cliques, peer pressure, or whether they'll be bullied, teased, or left out.

Because they're beginning to feel more a part of the larger world around them, preteens also may worry about world events or issues they hear about on the news or at school. Things like terrorism, war, pollution, global warming, endangered animals, and natural disasters can become a source of worry.

Helping Kids Conquer Worry

To help your kids manage what's worrying them:

Find out what's on their minds: Be available and take an interest in what's happening at school, on the team, and with your kids' friends. Take casual opportunities to ask how it's going. As you listen to stories of the day's events, be sure to ask about what your kids think and feel about what happened.

If your child seems to be worried about something, ask about it. Encourage kids to put what's bothering them into words. Ask for key details and listen attentively. Sometimes just sharing the story with you can help lighten their load.

Show you care and understand. Being interested in your child's concerns shows they're important to you, too, and helps kids feel supported and understood. Reassuring comments can help — but usually only after you've heard your child out. Say that you understand your child's feelings and the problem.

Guide kids to solutions. You can help reduce worries by helping kids learn to deal constructively with challenging situations. When your child tells you about a problem, offer to help come up with a solution together. If your son is worried about an upcoming math test, for example, offering to help him study will lessen his concern about it.

In most situations, resist the urge to jump in and fix a problem for your child — instead, think it through and come up with possible solutions together. Problem-solve with kids, rather than for them. By taking an active role, kids learn how to tackle a problem independently.

Keep things in perspective. Without minimizing a child's feelings, point out that many problems are temporary and solvable, and that there will be better days and other opportunities to try again. Teaching kids to keep problems in perspective can lessen their worry and help build strength, resilience, and the optimism to try again. Remind your kids that whatever happens, things will be OK.

So, for example, if your son is worried about whether he'll get the lead in the school play, remind him that there's a play every season — if he doesn't get the part he wants this time, he'll have other opportunities. Acknowledge how important this is to him and let him know that regardless of the outcome, you're proud that he tried out and gave it his best shot.

Make a difference. Sometimes kids worry about big stuff — like terrorism, war, or global warming — that they hear about at school or on the news. Parents can help by discussing these issues, offering accurate information, and correcting any misconceptions kids might have. Try to reassure kids by talking about what adults are doing to tackle the problem to keep them safe.

Be aware that your own reaction to global events affects kids, too. If you express anger and stress about a world event that's beyond your control, kids are likely to react that way too. But if you express your concern by taking a proactive approach to make a positive difference, your kids will feel more optimistic and empowered to do the same.

So look for things you can do with your kids to help all of you feel like you're making a positive difference. You can't stop a war, for example, but your family can contribute to an organization that works for peace or helps kids in war-torn countries. Or your family might perform community service to give your kids the experience of volunteering.

Offer reassurance and comfort. Sometimes when kids are worried, what they need most is a parent's reassurance and comfort. It might come in the form of a hug, some heartfelt words, or time spent together. It helps kids to know that, whatever happens, parents will be there with love and support.

Sometimes kids need parents to show them how to let go of worry rather than dwell on it. Know when it's time to move on, and help kids shift gears. Lead the way by introducing a topic that's more upbeat or an activity that will create a lighter mood.

Highlight the positive. Ask your kids what they enjoyed about their day, and listen attentively when they tell you about what goes great for them or what they had fun doing. Give plenty of airtime to the good things that happen. Let them tell you what they think and feel about their successes, achievements, and positive experiences — and what they did to help things turn out so well.

Schedules are busy, but make sure there's time for your kids to do little things they feel good doing. Daily doses of positive emotions and experiences — like enjoyment, gratitude, love, amusement, relaxation, fun, and interest — offset stress and help kids do well.

Be a good role model. The most powerful lessons we teach kids are the ones we demonstrate. Your response to your own worries, stress, and frustrations can go a long way toward teaching your kids how to deal with everyday challenges. If you're rattled or angry when dealing with a to-do list that's too long, your kids will learn that as the appropriate response to stress.

Instead, look on the bright side and voice optimistic thoughts about your own situations at least as often as you talk about what bothers or upsets you. Set a good example with your reactions to problems and setbacks. Responding with optimism and confidence teaches kids that problems are temporary and tomorrow's another day. Bouncing back with a can-do attitude will help your kids do the same.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2013

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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