Q. My 6-year-old daughter has a lot of worries. She worries about things that don't make a lot sense. Is there anything I can do to help her or should I take her to see a therapist?
A. Everyone worries. Everyone has a level of anxiety at some point in their lives. It's normal for kids to fret. Some kids fret more than others. When the worries get to the point where basic functioning is interrupted, it may be time to seek professional support from a children's therapist. There are some things, though, that parents can do to help so that maybe therapy won't be necessary.
1. Do not laugh, dismiss, criticize or negate your child's worries. Let's say your daughter comes to you in tears after the bedtime routine and says, "Mommy, I'm really afraid pythons are going to fall out of the trees outside my window and come into my room!" It might be hard to suppress a giggle but suppress you must.
2. Validate her feelings. The content about which she is worried we'll address in a minute. Right now you just have to reflect and validate. "Sweetie, I can see you are feeling really frightened right now by these pictures in your mind of pythons!"
3. Pause and let her speak. Keep your sincere empathy in gear with your face and just listen. She may need to tell you more about how worried she is or about the visions of pythons slithering in her head. Just listen and let her know you are listening. Be fully present.
4. Provide comforting facts. Like this: "Honey, did you know that pythons live in the jungle way down in South America? They don't live in Georgia." Gauge her reaction. Does she have a follow-up question? Answer it factually and honestly, but be sympathetic to her fear.
5. Summarize and help soothe. Assuming she is feeling better now, summarize the facts but help her to remember how to help herself be soothed. Encourage deep, long breaths and remind her of her cuddly bunny that helps her feel safe. Teach her to count slowly backwards from 30 as she pictures her favorite place (the beach, the mountain cabin, the back yard, playing with her friends).
You can apply these steps to most any apparently outlandish worry your child might have. What about the worries based in reality you ask? Let's say your neighbor had a terrible house fire and your child is worried his house is going to burn to the ground. Or what about the child who is being bullied at school? Let's see if we can apply these same principles.
1. Do not laugh, dismiss criticise or negate your child's worries. Regardless of how serious or realistic it may or may not seem to you, it's serious business in your child's mind.
2. Validate his feelings. "Son, I can see you are having a lot of worry thoughts about fire and I can understand why. When scary things happen in the world, sometimes we have worried feelings that it might happen to us. I can understand you are feeling frightened right now."
3. Pause and let him speak. Providing a space for your child to talk without interruption, without you rushing in to fix it, or dismiss the foundation of the worries, is invaluable.
4. Provide comforting facts: "Remember, we have a safety plan if there ever was a fire and we've posted it in every room. We have fresh batteries in the smoke alarms. We practiced yesterday, remember? Your mom and I are making sure there are no candles left burning and the stove is off and that there is no chance for an accidental fire. And the fire department is just down the street. Remember how fast they came to help our neighbor?
5. Summarize and help soothe: "Okay, so now you know, your mom and I are going to make sure the house is safe before we go to bed. We've got a safety plan and we've practiced. Now, it's time for you to help yourself feel calm. Let's take ten slow, deep breaths together..." Help your child to remember some ways he's felt calm when upset in the past.
If these tips aren't enough, there is no shame at all in bringing your child in for counseling. You'll want to seek out a counseling center that caters to children and a therapist who does play therapy with children. Children's therapists are well trained and experienced in knowing how to help children work through their anxieties and develop new skills for coping.
About this column: Lynn Louise Wonders, LPC, RPT-S is the Owner and Director of Therapy Services for Marietta Counseling for Children & Adults, LLC where she has 10 other highly qualified therapists who also provide services for children, adults and families. You can read more about her counseling center and the services they offer at www.mariettacounseling.com