Across the country, year 6 Primary School children are about to start sitting their SAT’s (Standard Attainment Tests). Some children may approach these tests without concern whilst others may worry and struggle to know how to manage their worries. Worry is a state of being that leads to preoccupation with a subject that causes distress from which it is hard to be distracted. It causes an emotional reaction, for example: tearfulness or anger which may be not be immediately visible and ‘worry thoughts’ may become evident. Worry can also affect behaviour in terms of avoidance of particular places or activities. In addition, worry may cause a person to feel physically uncomfortable through a range of symptoms such as: racing heart; wobbly legs; feeling dizzy; increased need to go the toilet; or feeling sick. Whilst it is normal for all children to feel worried from time to time, there will be occasions when your child needs some extra help to understand and manage their feelings. Children are all individual with unique personalities and temperaments and they learn to deal with worry in different ways. Children learn from their parents and families. Parents are the most important role models in every aspect of a child’s life until children hit the teens when research tells us that their peers become more important role models. The way in which parents manage worries and communicate about ‘worry’ in the family is key to children’s understanding of well-being and future well-being itself.
Children may worry about a range of issues: younger children and preteens typically worry about things like how well they are doing at school; tests; their changing bodies; fitting in with friends; the goal they missed at the football game; or whether they’ll be included in the sports team. They may feel worried about friendship issues like being popular, peer pressure, or whether they’ll be bullied, teased, or left out. As children start to feel part of the larger world around them, they may also worry about world events or issues they hear about on the news or at school. Issues such as terrorism, war, pollution, global warming, endangered animals, and natural disasters can become a source of worry. In addition, if there are special worries around health or family life this may cause additional worry.
Worry can become a problem when it lasts for longer than you might expect, upsets your child more than you would expect or starts to restrict life. How do you know when your child’s worries are a cause for concern?
Some signs that your child may be struggling to manage their worries are:
- Sleep becoming disrupted in the context of a well-established routine
- Becoming reluctant to go away from mum or dad
- Looking for more reassurance than is normal for them
- No longer enjoying clubs and activities that they previously enjoyed
- An increase in tantrums or ‘meltdowns’
- Complaints about a sore tummy, headaches or other physical ailments
- A reluctance to go to school or have difficulty separating in the mornings
- An increase in general tearfulness, anger or frustration
- A loss of appetite or just ‘going off their food’
- Younger children may seem reluctant to settle to play even at home
- An increase in sibling fights
- Avoidance of certain activities, places or situations
- Older children may lose interest in communicating with their peer group or show reduced interest in activities or school
Supporting your child to understand and manage their worries:
Connect with your child and find out about the worries
Find regular time to connect. This may be through play with a younger child or a walk to the park or as they get older the majority of communication might be at the meal table or in the car whilst on route to activities or school.
Use open ended statements to support your child in communicating with you about their feelings, for example “I wonder if you might be feeling a bit worried about SATs just now”
“It feels like there have maybe been a few worries around recently”
It can be helpful to give information that can be rejected by your child if it’s not quite right for example “sometimes sore tummies can be about worries in your tummy”
Self-disclosure can be helpful even if it’s a stretch on the truth
“sometimes mummy feels dizzy when there are lots of things to worry about” “I know when there are worries around for me as I get lots of sore headaches”
Children are very good at picking up what feels relevant and rejecting the bits that are not true for them. For older children, try to join them in their world by sitting to watch their favorite tv show or watch some gaming. What you are watching can be used as a basis for a discussion about feelings.
Let your child know that you understand their worries and empathise
As adults it can be easy to dismiss a child’s feelings in an attempt to make the worries ‘disappear’ and make them feel better. An example might be a child who feels worried about their pets health for example “don’t be silly, your dog will be fine”. Resist the temptation to make the worry disappear and show them that you really understand they are worried for example “sounds like you are feeling really worried about your dog just now”.
By allowing and understanding the emotion, it is much easier for your child to let go of the emotion.
Finding practical solutions
Practise some problem solving together, for example, “your feeling really worried about the SATs starting tomorrow, I wonder what we can do to make things feel easier?”
Support your child in remembering their strengths and how they have coped in the past “I remember you had that maths test last month and you were very worried, you did really well to stay calm, I wonder what helped you then?”
Encourage ‘Positive Self Talk’; we are all our own coaches. Encourage your child to actively use self-talk to their advantage. Agree on a statement that they find encouraging and get them to practice it in their head or out loud. For example “I’ve done this before and I know I can do it again” “I’ve got this, it’s going to be fine”.
As a rule of thumb if you are able to provide a space for the worry to be heard and you are able to model a calm response to the worry using a combination of strategies, your child is likely to be able to do the same. Remember, you are your child’s role model.
Looking to the future
It’s good to know what to do when your child is struggling to manage worries but what can you do to make them more resilient in the future? Being proactive and preventing difficulties is much easier in the long run than dealing with worries as they come along. Two proactive activities to bring about long term calm and that can be fun and very helpful for all of the family are:
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Diaphragmatic Breathing
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is about teaching the body to recognise physical tension and to be able to bring physical calm to the body quickly and effectively. It needs to be practiced ideally twice a day, morning and night time at a calm time. A calm time means that the brain is in the best state to learn.
Diaphragmatic Breathing is deep breathing. Deep breathing sends a very powerful message to the body that everything is okay and that you are safe. Practise deep breathing exercises once a day and then try to remember to practise every time you sit down through the day. This will remind you to keep practising. When worries come about, you and your children will be experts at deep calm breathing which will support you and your family in bringing calm to the situation.
Search Youtube for lots of examples of Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Diaphragmatic Breathing exercises lasting between 5 and 10 minutes. Chose one that suits you and your family, you may choose to all have different exercises.
Sometimes worries can take hold and feel tricky to deal with. If worries are getting in the way of you and your family being able to enjoy life it’s okay to ask for some support in learning to manage worries.
Dr Elise Kearney is Child and Family Clinical Psychologist and has a regular practice at The Fold Therapy Centre