If the goal of child rearing is to help children develop into independent adults, it’s hard to imagine how that is possible if worry prevents them from doing the very activities that will build their confidence.
Further, much of life is uncertain, and fear of uncertainty can become a seemingly insurmountable barrier for kids and parents alike, leaving courage and resilience far out of reach.
In their new book, The Worry Workbook for Kids: Helping Children Overcome Anxiety & the Fear of Uncertainty, Muniya S. Khanna, PhD, and Deborah Roth Ledley, PhD, address this very issue, drawing on current and effective strategies to create a host of practical activities parents can use to teach their children resilience and confidence — even when facing uncertainty.
The authors explain, “We may want to whisk our children out of uncomfortable situations, having them skip activities like sports or school trips that may feel too hard. But here’s the thing: being afraid of new situations isn’t the problem, it’s not even a sign of trouble, since most children feel that way.”
As the instinct to protect and shield children from harm is strong, many parents may unknowingly teach their children that the right response to fear is avoidance.
Worry demands predictability, protection from fear, and discomfort avoidance, and as our brains attempt to prepare for what could go wrong, often we create scenarios that are not realistic and fear takes over.
“After a while, our bodies and minds learn, incorrectly, that we can’t handle discomfort and that we actually are in danger,” write Khanna and Ledley.
As avoiding situations only exacerbates worry and fear, Khanna and Ledley suggest another approach is to use experiential activities that create opportunities to build mastery, create change, and learn new ways of thinking about uncertainty that support facing life’s challenges.
The first step is to identify the body’s alarm system. Khanna and Ledley write, “Your body thinks you are in a dangerous situation. But you’re not in danger. If you can remember that your body is just reacting to something it thinks is dangerous but is actually just new or uncomfortable, then you won’t have to worry about the alarm as much.”
And although many parents create safety nets with their children to help them feel more comfortable when in challenging situations, they actually perpetuate worry. Khanna and Ledley write, “A safety net strengthens the Worry Cycle, making it last longer. The situation stays hard for longer when you use a safety net.”
A better way is to step out of the Worry Cycle by spotting the false alarm, choosing a useful thought and a different reaction, and then practicing this response.
The reality is that for every kid, there are times when they were able to break free of the fear and handle a new, uncomfortable, or difficult situation differently, and by bringing their attention to these times, parents can help kids see that not every challenging situation turns out as bad as they think it will.
It is also helpful for kids to change the way they think about worry. Worry often takes over, much like a bully, and prevents them from doing the very things they want to do. When kids can learn to stop giving worry their attention, they will often find that their worry loses strength.
Similarly, by allowing worry to run its course, and not actively trying to make the feelings go away, kids can learn that the feelings will go away on their own.
Challenging their worries also empowers kids to develop more accurate thoughts, and begin to choose thoughts that are more useful to them. Here, Khanna and Ledley offer numerous questions and worksheets kids can use to challenge their worry and practice choosing and focusing on useful thoughts.
For example, one activity involves deciphering and listing the thoughts that are about the past, present, and future. Focusing on the past magnifies fear and focusing on the future creates anticipation, but by learning to stay in the present, kids can learn they can choose how the think about a situation.
Khanna and Ledley write, “When we focus on what we don’t have, what we can’t do, what didn’t go well, or what might turn out badly, sad and worried feelings come. When we focus on what we do have, what we can do, and the times when things do go well, happy, content, and calm feelings come.”
Khanna and Ledley also include many activities that have kids rate their fear, before and after putting themselves in scary situations, to show that worry, although uncomfortable, does not have to define their lives, and that by practicing the right activities, they can overcome their fears.
Perhaps the best lesson a parent can give their child is how to cope when life doesn’t go your way — and a fundamental part of this is learning how to face fears and uncertainty. In the age of anxiety, The Worry Workbook for Kids, should be every parent’s starting point.
The Worry Workbook for Kids: Helping Children Overcome Anxiety & the Fear of Uncertainty
Instant Help, June 2018
Paperback, 168 pages