A Child Psychotherapist’s Tips for Helping Parents Turn Their Child’s Big Worries Into Small Ones
When I greet a child in my office for the first time, I ask if they know why they are coming to see me. Children typically say, “ I don't remember” or “I forgot” or “because I got in trouble at school.” I nod and smile and tell them that my job is to help kids with their worries, and I reassure them that I am really good at turning big worries into small worries so things aren't so hard. Kids usually looked relieved and seem comforted. As I work with the child, I listen intently for worries.
When small worries are not handled, they become big. When a child's worries are big, they, eventually, forget where all of the small the worries originated from, and exist in a state of generalized anxiety. Anxious kiddos do funny things. Some act out aggressively because they feel small, so they need to act big. Some withdraw. Some can't fall asleep or stay asleep. Some wet the bed. Some are so anxious they can't eat. Intense anxiety also causes behavioral issues, physical symptoms( stomachs aches), developmental lags and regressions, or academic issues. Left untreated, the child ends up with vulnerabilities in the teen years, which is the worst time. Teens are attempting to figure out who they are in relationship to the world (identity formation). This task is difficult and almost unbearable if there is underlying depression and anxiety. Self harm and suicide are common phenomenon in the teen years.
Unfortunately, if a parent isn't attuned and adept at helping their child with worries, the parent is missing a necessity for raising a well adjusted and successful child. Kids with anxiety and depression often do not perform well in the teen years when anxiety mixes with a vulnerable self esteem. Helping a parent become skilled at assisting their child with worries is one of a child psychotherapists most important tasks.
Parents need to know that contrary to popular opinion, worries do not go away on their own. Nor do worries go away because a parent tells the child not to worry. In addition, a child won't open up to a parent in the teen years if the parent hasn't helped the child with their worries during childhood.
The following are tips for therapists who are helping parents with this skill.
1) Always listen for worries.
2) If a worry is not identified, but the child seems to be feeling negatively, the parent should ask, “Do you have a worry, honey?
3) Replace, “Don't worry about that” with a gentle and genuine, “That's a big worry, kiddo. I get it.”
4) Put yourself in your child's shoes and try to remember a situation that made you worry when you were their age. Say, “I used to worry about ……. when I was your age. I understand.”
When a parent empathizes with a feeling instead of rejecting the feeling,
“That's a big worry. I get why you are upset.”
“Your are mad, and you have every right to be mad.”
“You are disappointed. I would be too.”
The child immediately feels understood and connected to the parent, which allows them to feel less alone with the negative feeling. This is stills a sense of closeness with the parent.
The final tip is avoid confusing sympathy with empathy. Empathy is simply understanding and honoring feelings. Empathy requires nothing else be done. It is healing in and of itself. Sympathy, however, is different. When a parent pities a child, they are tempted to lower the expectations or change the rules for their child. This strips the child of self efficacy and creates a sense of entitlement in the child. Empathy heals. Sympathy creates a sense of entitlement.