Sheila Stubbs’ son, Clayton, was four when they moved from town to a house in the country. “He was constantly following me around,” says Stubbs. “I was literally tripping over him. I tried to get him to go play outside, but he wouldn’t.” It took several weeks, but Clayton finally explained to his mother that he couldn’t go outside because he was worried about the tigers. Tigers? Yes, he had convinced himself that tigers were hiding in the woods.
They may not be fretting about tigers, but many preschoolers worry about scary things, from monsters under the bed to parents dying. Some, like Clayton, won’t tell you what they’re afraid of, but you’ll see their anxiety when they are reluctant to do ordinary things — like playing outdoors — or if they are especially clingy, or turn to comforts, such as thumb-sucking, more than other kids their age. If yours is one of these worrywarts, it’s natural to wonder if you’ve somehow caused him to be overly anxious — and if there’s something you can do to help him get over those fears.
“You have to remember that some anxiety is normal,” points out Suneeta Monga, a psychiatrist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “In preschoolers, there are plenty of normal fears — fear of monsters, fear of separation from mom or dad, fear of the dark — and they are not really a problem unless they persist for more than a few weeks, or if they are really interfering with the child’s life.”
What causes one child to be more of a worrywart than another? Monga says it’s largely genetic. “About 25 percent of kids have what we call a more inhibited temperament; these children are more likely to be more sensitive and anxious,” she explains. “This is inherited — anxious parents tend to have anxious kids.” This explains why one child can watch a scary movie and not be affected, while another will see that same movie and have nightmares about it for weeks, says Monga.
So how can you help your worrywart cope with the things that seem to bother her? Monga suggests these do’s and don’ts:
Do remain calm and approach the situation positively. Monga points out that overly cautious parents are likely to say things like “Be careful on the slide. You might fall and hurt yourself” — without realizing that they are increasing the child’s anxiety.
It’s better to say confidently: “I’m sure you’ll have fun on the slide, enjoy yourself, and I’m right over here if you need me.”
Do help children learn to relax in situations that are stressful for them. See “Relax!” (below) for a deep breathing exercise Monga recommends.
Do recognize that you can do a lot to help the child just by being there. “If your child is worried about going to a birthday party, he may feel better about going if you stay with him,” Monga points out. “That’s definitely better than not going at all. And going to a few parties with you there may help him develop the courage to go to the next one alone.” And don’t worry, there will probably be plenty of other parents staying at the party with their preschoolers.
Don’t get angry at your child for worrying or resisting something becauseshe’s anxious. She needs your support and reassurance. However, excessive reassurance (delivering a constant stream of You’ll be OK. You can do it. It’s fine. There’s nothing to worry about) can make the child feel even more anxious, so don’t overdo it.
Don’t let your child avoid everything that worries him. Monga points out that anxiety tends to peak at the beginning of a new or scary situation, then eases off. If you can help your child get through the initial stage of high anxiety, he’s likely to have a positive experience and that will make it easier next time.
Don’t try to convince your child that his worries are groundless. He’ll just become more convinced otherwise as he tries to prove to you that they are real. Instead, help him think about things realistically. If your five-year-old is worried that you might die, you can say: “Mommy is very healthy. I take good care of myself. You don’t need to be worried about me.”
If your child’s worries seem to be extreme, Monga recommends talking to your family doctor or paediatrician, who will be able to determine if extra help is needed. Monga runs a program at The Hospital for Sick Children for children as young as five, using stories, games and puppets to help them learn to relax and manage their anxiety. “The most effective programs work with both parents and children,” she adds. “The younger the child, the more critical is the parental piece.”
Suneeta Monga suggests practising deep breathing with your child at bedtime to provide him with a technique to use under stress.
1. Take a nice, deep breath.
2. Hold it for a count of five.
3. Exhale through the mouth.
She emphasizes that it won’t work to introduce this during an anxious situation — the child needs to practise so that it becomes a natural response.