When Emma was 7 years old, she seemed to be catching a bug every Monday morning. She’d complain of stomachaches and didn’t want to go to school. Initially, Mom kept her home from school, believing Emma was sick. Usually, about an hour later, Mom would find Emma giggling and happily playing with her 4-year-old sister. She appeared to have been healed miraculously.
Mom often wondered if Emma had been truthful and threatened to take her to school. Emma’s stomachaches would immediately return. This situation happened often enough to lead Mom to consult a professional. Mom discovered that Emma’s challenge was not integrity or a stomach problem. Emma was experiencing too many worries.
Emma’s story probably sounds familiar if you have children with worries. Do you know what is happening and why your children experience those stomachaches?
When we perceive a threatening situation, such as a fire or a big dog chasing us, our senses and our thinking brain immediately notify our safety alarm (the amygdala in the limbic system). It in turn alerts other parts of our brain to promptly prepare our body to fight or escape the danger. Our autonomic nervous system releases stress hormones into our bloodstream to help us do this. Even though blood is constantly flowing in our body, when the fight-or-flight reaction occurs, the blood flow changes. For example, our stomachs are not needed during a life-threatening situation. The blood flow to the stomach is reduced significantly since other parts of our body need it more. When this occurs, we feel that stomachache.
Sometimes there may not be a fire or a dog chasing us, but our worry thoughts alone can activate the fight-or-flight response. When children experience excessive worries and frequent stomachaches, they are most likely experiencing the fight-or-flight reaction.
When children don’t understand something, they try to make sense of it by using their imagination. However, the more they try to figure things out, the more they may worry. Human nature is to want to get rid of unpleasant feelings and thoughts. However, numerous studies confirm that the more we try to get rid of unpleasant feelings and thoughts, the more they come to the forefront.
Instead of fighting the feelings, children can learn skills to feel grounded when “worry clouds” show up. Here are a few suggestions:
- Invite your children to notice the weather.
Have them notice how some clouds are big, medium, or small; how they come and go and change all the time. Remind them that feelings are like clouds. Your children can pretend to watch their worries as if they were clouds floating in the sky.
- Teach your children to notice their surroundings and what is happening around them.
This is so that they can pay attention to the present moment rather than fueling their worries by trying to get rid of them.
- Invite your children to pay attention to the way they are breathing.
They can learn to take slow belly breaths. Explain that this is not to get rid of the worries, but rather it is so they can anchor themselves like a ship in a harbor while the storm goes by.
- When appropriate, share some of your worries.
Children need to know that grownups worry too. Remind them that this is a normal response. It is how we handle worries that makes the difference.
- Help children notice positive aspects of their lives when they are having difficult times.
Instead of trying to get rid of the “worry clouds,” they can focus on their friends, pets, games, and other interests.
- Create daily routines.
Have your children practice deep breathing (belly breaths) and watch their worries as if they were clouds. Doing these skills as a family can be fun and will let your children know this is important. You can take two minutes to practice right before eating; before or after doing homework; or when your children are already in bed. For example, invite them to close their eyes and practice taking belly breaths while imagining clouds floating in the sky. This can be a great way to finish the day.
It is not easy raising children, and when they have worries, it is twice the challenge. Your children can learn skills to manage anxiety. Remember, you are their model. As you practice these skills, you’ll also be able to watch your worries float by and have a clearer mind. This will in turn help you enjoy your children even more.
Worried girl photo available from Shutterstock