“Worrying is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do but never gets your anywhere” – Erma Bombeck
When I work with children in my office I often refer to worry using terms like ‘worry tricks’ ( a term borrowed from my time spent training with the author of Up & Down the Worry Hill, Aureen Pinto Wagner) or an ‘error message’ that got sent to our brains because a few wires are twisted, or a glitch – were I to shift the conversation to anxiety (sometimes because the child has heard that they have anxiety, or they’ve heard their parents/teachers talk about anxiety) I would talk about ‘thoughts that get stuck‘ – ‘messages that we can’t get out of our head’ and something we think about a lot, or always.
Definitions of Worry –
(1) to think about problems or fears
(2) to feel or show fear and concern because you think that something bad has happened or could happen
to disturb or interfere with someone’s comfort or peace of mind
thoughts, images, and emotions of a negative nature, in a repetitive, uncontrollable manner
Definitions of Anxiety –
a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something
(1) an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behaviours
(2) feeling of uneasiness and worry, usually generalized and unfocused as an overreaction to a situation that is only subjectively seen as menacing
(1) a state of apprehension and fear resulting from the anticipation of a threatening event or situation
(2) if normal psychological functioning is disrupted or if anxiety persists without an identifiable cause
Our worries are connected to our thinking & our thoughts. Anxiety is connected to our feelings & our bodies.
“Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to live in the present moment.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
I love working with children because we will often come up with our own definitions and descriptions of things so that they make sense for the unique child sitting with me.
I love creating visual images of worry, and talking about worry – because the first step is to externalize the worry (or the anxiety) from the child.
Just as the first step to the practice of mindfulness is too notice your thinking, I use the same approach and strategies to help children notice their thinking & become aware of their body messages.
Whether it’s a formal diagnosis or simply a concern shared by a parent – anxiety does not need to define your child. Anxiety does not get to be in charge of your child, at least in my office, and we do not want worries or anxiety to limit your child’s experience of life.
Talking about the anxiety – rather than your anxious child – helps empower the child to believe that they can learn to be in charge of their anxiety (and in turn, all of their other emotions) and learn to think and feel differently.
What’s the difference, really?
I love this explanation from Guy Winch, in his article for Psychology Today, “10 Crucial Differences Between Worry and Anxiety” where he states that “Worry tends to be more focused on thoughts in our heads, while anxiety is more visceral in that we feel it throughout our bodies.”
Another big part of my work with children is emotional awareness. Teaching children about their ‘body messages’ is one of my favourite parts of my play based clinical sessions – children are incredibly creative & visual, instinctively. Growing a child’s emotional awareness, learning to name emotions and recognize the differences between nervous, worried, scared or anxious is such a rich process of discovery.
“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow” – Swedish Proverb
When does worry become anxiety?
- Look for times when the “old tricks “don’t work anymore – if a hug or a glass of milk or a song or a silly game once helped to quiet the worries but now doesn’t – take notice
- If patterns change; eating (amount, preferences), sleeping, self-Care/hygiene – take notice
- If behaviours change; rituals or ‘needs’ start to emerge & get stuck, more time spent in rooms, less interaction with peers or loss of enjoyment in sports or activities
- If fears/phobias appear
So what can you do?
Build a connection and language with your children around feelings. It doesn’t have to be complicated, start small.
- If you’re running out to do an errand, consider taking them with you
- If you’re washing the dishes, get out a stool and let them help
- If you’re rushing around unpacking groceries, ask them to come and help
- If you’re making dinner, find a way to include them & ask for their help
This gives you an opportunity to thank them, to notice them and if you’re lucky, to listen when they start to chatter about their own day and what’s going on in their own heads.
Ensuring that the lines of communication are open, familiar and receptive – takes practice! We need to use them, about the little stuff, so that when’s there’s big stuff we know where to start.
Stay Tuned for Part Two: When do we need to worry about our children’s worries? Teaching Children to Listen to their Own Unique Body Messages (Psst… adults have them too!)