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Peace of Mind: How to Help a Child with Anxiety

worried

My 7-year-old daughter, Stella, had always been good at spelling. So when her first-grade teacher announced a spelling bee, I was excited. Stella, on the other hand, started worrying. "I don't understand why we have to spell the words in front of everyone," she complained. Then on the morning of the bee, she said she didn't want to go to school because her stomach hurt.

Experts say Stella's response was normal. Even happy-go-lucky kids tend to worry more once they hit 7 or 8, as they gain a greater understanding of the world around them and start to realize how much isn't in their control. "At this age, there's a shift from monster-under-the-bed kind of worries to real-life ones -- whether it's that a natural disaster will strike or that they'll let the baseball team down," says Jenn Berman, Psy.D., Parents advisor and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids.

Most 7- and 8-year-olds will tell you their worries, but be on the lookout for symptoms like trouble sleeping, stomachaches, headaches, or acting out. Your child may need professional help if her anxiety causes her to avoid many situations, or if she seems constantly under stress. But kid worries usually aren't cause for too much concern. See how to calm down your little nervous Nellie.

Hear out your worrywart entirely before giving him advice. Your kid wants to be certain that you understand and empathize with his tricky situation.

Real-Life Worry: New Situations

It's the week before your son's first overnight trip with the Boy Scouts, and he's making a million excuses not to go. Your instinct may be to immediately reassure him, but find out specifically what he's fretting about first, says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. "You may be tempted to say, 'Don't worry. No one is going to be mean to you,' when in reality he was really worried about how he'll find his way around. Now you've given him something new to worry about." To figure out his specific concern, ask, "What do you think is going to happen?" Then think of several things that the two of you can do ahead of time to help ease his fear. Perhaps it's looking up information online about the trip before it starts or asking an older scout to tell your kid what it was last year. Often children this age do worry about making friends. If that's the case, Dr. Chansky recommends helping him recall other times he's done that successfully. You might ask, "How did you feel before your first soccer practice last year when you barely knew anyone on the team?" followed by, "And how did you feel after that first week?" That reminder of his own proven abilities will be significantly more reassuring than any magic words from you.

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Real-Life Worry: Natural and Man-Made Disasters

Your daughter sees news footage of an earthquake, or watches the tornado whisk Dorothy away in The Wizard of Oz, and suddenly she's cowering in your bed every time it storms. Clear up any misconceptions she has by searching online together for statistics that show how unlikely such natural disasters are. If she saw something specific on the news, it also helps to share what adults are doing to tackle the problem. For example, you could talk about Red Cross relief efforts in a disaster-hit area or the tornado warning system in your town. At the same time, create a family emergency plan and give her something that would be her job if there were a natural disaster, even if it's only something like helping to put the cat in the carrying cage, Dr. Berman says. "That will make her feel as if she has some power, which can often help ease these kinds of fears."

Real-Life Worry: Death

If your daughter says she's worried about you dying, you may be inclined to say something like, "Don't worry, honey. I'm not going to die." That's not a good idea, experts say. "It's not really true, and it doesn't help your child deal with her feelings," says Dr. Berman. Instead, you could share with her how unlikely it is, noting that most people don't die until they're much older. Or say something like: "It sounds as if you're really worried about me dying. I plan to be here with you for a really long time. I want to watch you grow up, graduate from school, fall in love, and get married; I want to meet my grandkids." If your child specifically asks who would take care of her if something happens, tell her what your plans are.

Real-Life Worry: Failure

Although your son has always been great at baseball, he's obsessing about the game tomorrow, afraid that he'll strike out or drop a fly ball. "This is the age when kids begin to realize there are important moments in their life when they'll be judged by others, whether it's a violin concert or a standardized test in school -- and they feel pressure not to let anyone down," says Jeremy Schneider, a family therapist in New York City. Rather than telling your child you know he'll do well, which may increase the pressure, remind him that you'll love him no matter what. Then teach him self-soothing techniques he can practice any time his stomach is in knots, like deep breathing, counting backwards, or visualizing what he wants to happen. "I tell kids that the worry in their head is one channel on the radio station in their brain, but they can change it whenever they want," says Schneider. "If they're worrying about not making the baseball team, they can just change the station to their own voice and focus on last year's vacation or they can think about the people who love them."

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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