The fact is a little bit of worry is a good thing for adults and children — it motivates and helps children with performance. Also, in the case of a true emergency some concern is biologically advantageous. However, when worry turns to anxiety, performance is adversely affected.
Often I work with children who aren’t stressed enough. They are failing their tests, not completing their homework, and are content with just “passing”. On the other side of the coin, I work with children who worry too much. These children don’t perform well on tests because they blank or they put themselves down because of their performance. Although I could speak about strategies for both groups, I will focus on strategies for the “worried ones”.
How can children who worry excessively, turn their worry into concern so they can achieve their peak performance and feel better? A combination of psycho-education, cognitive, and behavioral strategies can be useful to help children cope with their worry.
Some children and adults have a predisposition to get worried more easily. As a result, they startle more easily and feel physical sensations and negative thoughts more readily. Over time, a habit develops where both physical symptoms and negative thoughts occur automatically and too often. The goal of treatment is to help children change the way they think and act so that they develop new habits towards approaching challenging situations.
Changing One’s Thoughts
Cognitively, children are taught to think differently about the situations that make them worried. Often, children who are anxious, expect the worst to happen. The situation can be a neutral one, but the child expects the worst. The goal would be that once the child can identify his/her negative thoughts then he/she can fight back. In particular, children can ask themselves: Am I exaggerating? Am I jumping to conclusions? Am I focusing just on the bad things? Is this helpful how I am thinking? They then can come up with alternative, more realistic thoughts that will make them feel better. The goal is to get faster at catching these anxious thoughts and answering back almost instantly. With enough practice the new thoughts will take over the old ones.
Children are taught to detect internal and external stimuli that trigger anxiety. Instead of giving into these triggers, the children learn to apply newly developed coping skills. Specifically, children are taught that the physical sensations they are experiencing (e.g., heart pounding, shortness of breath, dizziness, shaking, etc.) are harmless and only scare them because they tell themselves that they are dangerous (e.g., no one has ever died from anxiety). In addition, because the physical symptoms they are experiencing happen as a result of breathing too quickly, they are taught to slow down their breath. They are instructed to breathe from their stomach instead of their chest. This will bring down their physical symptoms.
In addition, children are taught not to avoid situations that make them worried. Instead, they are instructed to face their fears. Exposing children to what they fear in a manageable and hierarchical way, allows them to learn that what they feared was not as bad as they expected. It also shows them that they can manage stressful situations successfully. This experience leads to true change and new positive habits.