How to stop your kids from worrying obsessively?

As states make decisions about opening up and schools set contingency plans for resuming classes, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what happens next in the response to COVID-19. It’s a little like trying to stand up on ice. Not knowing what’s ahead can heighten levels of worry and stress for both parents and kids. 

Worry can be the go-to in an effort to cope with uncertainty. It gives us a feeling of control in an out-of-our control situation because we’re working overtime to come up with solutions. Taken to the extreme, we create worst case scenarios because of our fear of the future. That’s called Intolerance of Uncertainty (IU) – the tendency to react negatively to uncertain situations and events. 

But worrying doesn’t really work. It just robs us of enjoyment in the present, saps our energy, and keeps us up at night. And then it can lead to fear. Our brains are wired to react with fear when we don’t know what’s coming next. In a study at CalTech, researchers determined that the less information we have the more irrational and erratic our decisions become. 

Children typically develop different fears at different ages and developmental stages. A baby will be afraid of loud noises, strangers and separation. Preschoolers are afraid of the dark and being alone. Worries increase at school age when kids become afraid of social situations, tests, criticism, and physical harm, to name just a few. Around the age of 8 they start to catastrophize their worries and may begin to believe that worrying is a good thing to do to prevent bad things from happening. 

Worriers run in families. So as we enter this season of uncertainty, check yourself—are you passing worrying on to your kid? Try these strategies together to calm stress and anxiety for the entire family. 

Practice self-care.

Take a deep breath. Calm your own anxieties to model a response for your kids. Then, help them to do the same.
  • Acknowledge your feelings and talk about them with your kids.
  • Label your irrational thoughts before they become irrational fears. Now focus on what you know to be the facts of the situation.
  • Establish rituals for the family.
  • Set up boundaries to separate from anxiety-stoking friends.

Develop alternate plans.

We’re still learning a lot about the impact of COVID-19. Advisories are changing frequently. Having a back-up plan builds resilience and makes it easier to pick yourself up and move on with life. 

Turn off the news.

It’s important to stay informed, but bad news can have a negative effect and increase fear. Limit how much news you and your kids consume. 

Stay positive.

Positive thoughts quiet fears and irrational thinking by focusing the brain on something that’s completely stress-free. Consider what you’re grateful for; gratitude has the power to heal and energize.

Maintain routines.

Routines provide a sense of control when a lack of structure increases the sense of stress. Morning Check-Ins and evening Check-Outs, family meals, and other routines will give you a sense of continuity even now.

Cultivate empathy.

The COVID-19 pandemic is global. Empathizing with others improves our ability to regulate emotions and provides social connectedness. We are not alone. 
  • Talk openly about how others are dealing with the uncertainty.
  • Discuss the lessons you’ve learned during these past few months?
  • Be kind to each other and your wider community.

Have some fun.

Play brings joy. It also develops emotional control, social competency, and curiosity. While it’s hard to predict what’s coming next, your family can control the chaos by having a laugh and getting serious about play!

Practice emotional self-distancing.

Adaptive self-reflection—the act of self-distancing from past and future stressors—leads to lower levels of anxiety as well as fewer negative visualizations about what might happen. When adults and kids experience strong emotions, we try and make sense of them. This sense-making can take the form of positive self-reflection and emotional self-distancing (resulting in lower anxiety levels) or it can lead to worrying (making us feel worse). Parents can help kids pivot from worrying to self-regulation and “taking a step back” by teaching their kids the four steps to emotional self-distancing.

Even though we’re not sure what will happen next, we can take comfort in reflecting on how we’ve handled COVID-19 so far. Help your kid record this living history as an important reminder of how you endured through COVID-19.