Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry, you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy
~Bobby McFerrin “Don’t Worry Be Happy” 1988
If you start singing this song to someone who is in the middle of a panic attack, be prepared to be punched in the face. If we could stop worrying, and just be happy, wouldn’t that be awesome? If we could just instantly change our emotional state, don’t you think we would have done it already? In the midst of a strong emotion, we often lose awareness of the tools and skills needed to deal with it.
“Mommy, I can’t sleep.”, “Daddy, I don’t want to go to my best friend’s birthday party.”, “I don’t want to go to school.”, “I’m stupid.”, “Don’t leave me!”, “I’m afraid that something bad is going to happen”. These are things you might hear your child say and, taken by themselves, are very normal ups and downs of daily life for your child. However, if things like this are being said regularly they could be signs a problem with anxiety.
Anxiety in children seems to be on the rise. It’s thought that this is due to information overload, increasing busyness of the family, and also because there is more awareness and reporting of anxiety symptoms. Symptoms of anxiety in children can include the following:
- problems going to sleep or staying asleep
- increased episodes of crying
- increased irritability
- increased clinginess when other children appear okay
- increased complaints of stomach problems, headaches, or other body complaints
- increased “bathroom” accidents such as bedwetting
- decreased ability to concentrate
- decreased appetite
- decreased energy
- decreased desire to try new things or general avoidance.
Anxiety happens when we believe that we need more control than we have or we feel too vulnerable to a perceived threat. It can develop as a natural response to a stressful life event. It can also hit us when we least expect it. Anxiety can save our lives (i.e., running away from zombies) or it can make us miserable (i.e., worrying about being laughed at in gym class, or worrying if zombies are real).
I have found that anxious kids often have an anxious parent. Being prone to anxiety can have a genetic component and therefore kids can just be anxious by nature. However, it’s also true that kids look to their parents for reassurance that they are okay. If the parent gives the message “we can get through this”, the child is much more confident that they can actually get through it – whatever “it” is. So with that in mind, let me give you a tool that is helpful in reducing anxiety (for you and your child). It’s a mindfulness exercise called BOLD. Here it is:
B stands for Breathe. Take 4 seconds to breathe in through your nose, 4 seconds to hold, 4 seconds to breathe out through your mouth, 4 seconds to hold, and then repeat this cycle 4 times.
O stands for Observe. Notice what is going on around you right now with your five senses. Observe how you are physically, emotionally. Ground yourself. Push your heels into the floor. Stretch. Recognize and make room for all your feelings and thoughts without judging them.
L stands for Listen. Listen to your values. What is most important and what is the most “right” thing you could do in response to the situation at hand?
D stands for Decide. Make a decision to commit your values to action. Remember that courage is the ability to do something even though it is frightening or uncomfortable.
Parents, put this BOLD exercise into practice and teach it to your children. It’s a real confidence booster and anxiety shrinker. Your stress can and will affect your children. Just like adults, children’s life experiences will affect how they handle difficult situations. Children need to make sense of stressful events, just like adults. Here are additional some tips for talking with children about stressful life events:
- Be as open as possible. Answer questions in a way that gives the information they are looking for, but not too much information.
- Consider your child’s age and developmental level. Your children think in concrete terms, so use accurate words, not figurative speech.
- Provide reassurance they will be OK, and that you are going to be OK (if known).
- Expect that your child might worry or obsess about the stressful event – this is normal.
- Encourage children to talk about their concerns or express their feelings. With younger children, encourage them to draw if they can’t find the words to express themselves.
- Spend extra time with your child doing something they think is fun.
- Listen, show you understand, and give validation.
- Realize this is a teachable moment. Children will learn to cope with stress by watching how YOU cope with stress.
- Consider professional help if your child develops excessive fear of separation or ongoing nightmares.