18 Oct 2017

Breaking the worry cycle

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 18 October 2017
anxious boy

Photo: Flickr user Sherif Salama / CC BY 2.0

Attempts to protect your kids from anxiety can end up making it worse, says psychotherapist Lynn Lyons.

She talks to Jesse Mulligan about what actually works in Anxious Kids Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children.

Some worry is a normal part of childhood, but kids today are worrying a lot more about not making mistakes, embarrassment and judgement, Lyons says.

Reassurance is part of parenting and can be a good short-term fix, but it doesn't give kids the message that uncertainties are a fact of life we all have to deal with.

If you constantly reassure a kid you're "doing anxiety's job for it" and preventing them from learning the skills to manage when something difficult does happen, she says.

"The more we step in and externally reassure, we get in the way of them developing internal reassurance. We want kids to be able to talk to themselves when they run up against challenges."

Anxiety hates uncertainty and seeks to eliminate it, she says.

"Anxiety basically says 'I have to know this isn't going to happen and I have to be told it's not going to happen repeatedly and I have to put things in place to protect it'."

Encourage your child to personify their worry by giving it a name. (Lyons suggests to older kids they give it the name of someone who you find the way they talk to you annoying.)

Once the anxiety has a name, you can look at how it operates and talk back to it.

"We know that [insert name] is going to show up and say 'You can't handle this. It's going to be terrible if Mum's away'. We have to say 'Oh [insert name], that's what you always say. I can tolerate being uncomfortable, I can tolerate not knowing exactly how I'm going to feel, I can problem solve and I'm not going to let [insert name] dictate how all of us behave."

Lynn Lyons

Lynn Lyons Photo: supplied

Anxiety loves to be taken seriously so it's helpful to disrupt and defuse it with humour.

"Oh [insert name]. You again. You always say that. Every time the flowers start to bloom you go 'Bumblebees, bumblebees!' If we get stung by a bee we're not gonna love it but we'll handle it. I think you need to find some other kid to bug.'

Avoid saying 'Whats the worst that can happen?' to an anxious child because then only feeds anxiety.

"If you've got a worrier that's really good at catastrophising and going to that place, we're simply reinforcing the thinking pattern of anxiety, which is let's sit down and think about and talk about what's the worst that could happen."

Breathing, meditation, yoga and mindfulness techniques can be helpful as a reset but are not a solution on their own.

"There's a cognitive process that's going on that breathing doesn't get rid of … If you're a worrier, breathing alone is just not going to cut it.

"If you have social anxiety and you spend a lot of time thinking about what you've said wrong or whether or not people are judging you or being humiliated, breathing is not going to change that thinking pattern or the relationship you have with your worry."

Don't tell kids they need to be calm or have certainty before they can move forward.

"If we're teaching kids the language of being able to tolerate and problem-solve and move through, that's fabulous. If we're teaching kids how to talk about getting rid of, eliminating, distracting, thought-stopping… all of that stuff in the long term is not all that effective.

"I want them to be able to talk back to their worry in a way that says 'Worry, I know what you want to know everything, I know you want a 100 percent guarantee, and I'm willing to tolerate not knowing exactly how this is going to go."

Get the new RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)