Our son wor­ries end­lessly about mi­nor things he can­not fix

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Family - Dr John Sharry is a so­cial worker and psy­chother­a­pist, and code­vel­oper of the Par­ents Plus Pro­grammes. He will be de­liv­er­ing cour­ses on par­ent­ing chil­dren and teenagers in Cork in Dublin start­ing in Oc­to­ber 2017. See so­lu­tiontalk.ie Send your queries to h

QMy son is nine and the el­dest of three chil­dren. He is a ter­ri­ble wor­rier. At bed­time he can get so up­set: he tells me he as a “guilty con­science” and that his tummy is sore and that he “feels so bad about him­self”. When he tells me what is at the bot­tom of all this worry it is usu­ally some­thing very mi­nor or even silly: for ex­am­ple, he wor­ried that when he was of­fered a cake at a party three months ago he can’t re­mem­ber whether he said thank you. Or he might be wor­ry­ing that he up­set some­one at a game in school when he told them to shut up in a jok­ing way (even when there is no sign the other boy was up­set). He gets so worked up.

We al­ways re­as­sure him that he is a wonderful kind boy who would do noth­ing bad at all. We tell him to stop wor­ry­ing, but it does not seem to be work­ing. It is very up­set­ting to us all.

AYour ques­tion high­lights just how anx­i­ety can af­fect a child’s and in­deed an adult’s mind. Start­ing out from some­thing small, through ru­mi­na­tion and worry, the anx­i­ety can grow in sig­nif­i­cance so that it can dis­turb sleep and even cause phys­i­cal symp­toms such as stom­ach ache. Fur­ther, though the child is in­deed mak­ing a moun­tain out of a mole­hill, it is very hard to “rea­son away” th­ese wor­ries and they can con­tinue to dis­tress the child and those who care for him or her. The key to help­ing a wor­ry­ing child is to re­spond in a calm re­as­sur­ing way, with­out get­ting “hooked into” the worry your­self. You want to be a calm coun­ter­bal­ance to their worry and anx­i­ety, and in so do­ing so help them learn to pause and be calm them­selves.

Be un­der­stand­ing, even though his worry might be un­rea­son­able

Be sym­pa­thetic and un­der­stand­ing when your son ex­presses a worry. You can ac­knowl­edge that the worry is not rea­son­able (deep down he knows this him­self) but al­ways be un­der­stand­ing. For ex­am­ple, you might say to him – “even though you might know there is no rea­son to worry, your mind can play tricks on you and make your worry any­way” or “I can some­times worry like that about silly things in the past; the mind can be funny like that, it can make a moun­tain out of a mole­hill”.

Fo­cus on your son’s strengths

Of­ten, peo­ple who worry feel bad that they are wor­ry­ing and this makes them feel worse. A way to coun­ter­bal­ance this is to fo­cus on your son’s strengths. For ex­am­ple you might say, “It is only be­cause you are a sen­si­tive boy, think­ing about other peo­ple’s feel­ings, that you are feel­ing this way . . . though in this sit­u­a­tion I think you are be­ing over­sen­si­tive and have noth­ing to worry about.”

Be there to lis­ten

It is im­por­tant to be there to lis­ten to your son. It is best that he has time to ex­press his wor­ries, with you be­ing there to coun­ter­bal­ance them rather than him hav­ing no one to talk to and re­press­ing his feel­ings. Chil­dren can get relief from hav­ing some­one lis­ten to them and this can take the power out of many wor­ries.

Take some time to lis­ten to his wor­ries daily and to help him think them through. I usu­ally sug­gest to par­ents to set up a daily “worry time” with anx­ious chil­dren, when they will take 15 -30 min­utes to lis­ten and prob­lem-solve wor­ries with their chil­dren. But they will keep the time lim­ited and not talk about wor­ries at other times – “let’s talk about that later as we have agreed . . . now let’s talk only about fun things.” Cre­at­ing a spe­cific “worry” or “prob­lem-solv­ing” time has the ad­van­tage of mak­ing sure your son gets the time he needs, while help­ing bound­ary the wor­ries so they don’t be­come dom­i­nant.

En­cour­age your son to prob­lem solve

Help your son to think more con­struc­tively about his wor­ries. Ask good ques­tions that help him think dif­fer­ently. In­stead of ru­mi­nat­ing about a sit­u­a­tion in the past, ask him how he might han­dle a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in the fu­ture. For ex­am­ple, ask him what he might say in the fu­ture if he was wor­ried he might have hurt a per­son’s feel­ings by a joke (for ex­am­ple, he could check if he of­fended the child and apol­o­gise if he had). Or if he for­got to say thank you when given some­thing, he could go back to the per­son later and say thank you. Fo­cus­ing on what he has learnt from so­cial sit­u­a­tions in the past is a great way of build­ing his so­cial skills and con­fi­dence.

En­cour­age your son to learn to let go of wor­ries

Take time also to help him think through how best to han­dle wor­ries in the past that he can’t change. For ex­am­ple, you could ask him: “Aside from re­solv­ing to do some­thing dif­fer­ent next time, is it help­ing you in any way to keep wor­ry­ing about it?” Most chil­dren agree that the ru­mi­na­tion is un­help­ful, de­spite feel­ing trapped in this cy­cle. Once this is ac­knowl­edged you can go on to ex­plore how he can let go of th­ese wor­ries: “How can you stop your­self wor­ry­ing and fo­cus on other things?”

Lots of things like re­lax­ation, phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, chang­ing thoughts and mind­ful­ness can help.

It can be use­ful to draw on the kind sen­si­tive side of his na­ture to help him to be more self-com­pas­sion­ate. For ex­am­ple, you could ask him: “What would you say to a friend who was wor­ried like you by things in the past? What mes­sage would you give them? What would you ad­vise them to do?

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JUAN MONINO/IS­TOCK

Be sym­pa­thetic and un­der­stand­ing, ask ques­tions that will help him to think dif­fer­ently, and then ex­plore how he can help him­self let go of the wor­ry­ing.

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