Children with anxiety present a unique variety of challenges to their parents, ranging from irrational fears to unexplained physical sensations to frustrating behavioral issues. Often, anxiety in children emerges as catastrophic thinking. Catastrophic thinking occurs when an individual thinks the worst in response to ordinary situations. For instance, a child may be fearful of attending school the first day of class. Instead of feeling ordinary feelings of nervousness, he may blatantly refuse to go to school. A child who is afraid of the dark may fear that something bad will happen to her when the lights go out and avoid going to sleep for as long as possible.
According to HealthyChildren.org, anxiety is an illness that often runs in families. Unlike a case of the jitters or ordinary nervousness, a true anxiety disorder can be debilitating to a child. Because the symptoms of anxiety disorders can masquerade as illnesses or as “having a bad day” (e.g. belly aches, headaches, or acting out), it’s sometimes difficult for parents to properly interpret the cause of these symptoms.
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America reports that one in eight children have anxiety and this can “co-occur” with other diagnoses, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, and eating disorders just to name a few. It can be frustrating – as well as overwhelming – for parents to break through the patterns of catastrophic thinking that often accompanies anxiety disorders in children.
The good news is that there are ways that parents can help children refocus their thinking in more positive directions. It’s important that parents understand that anxiety often leaves individuals feeling helpless to confront the feelings that paralyze them. However, with patience, understanding, and a plan, mothers and fathers can be an integral factor in helping their children confront, work through, and, ultimately, overcome the catastrophic thinking that co-exists with anxiety.
Here are three ways that parents can help their children with anxiety and catastrophic thinking:
Write it Down
Keeping the age and capabilities of the child in mind, it often helps to create a feelings journal (younger children may find it helpful to draw pictures instead.) Parents should encourage children to write down their fears (or draw them) whenever they arise. Journaling feelings in this way, helps the child confront the feelings head on when they occur instead of bottling them up inside and prolonging anxious feelings and negative thoughts. This step goes a long way toward identifying the source of catastrophic thinking.
Parents should then take this process a step further by talking to their children about their feelings journal. This is integral to the child’s ability to identify triggers for their catastrophic thoughts. By identifying triggers, children and their parents can take the next step toward avoiding negative thoughts and, perhaps, eliminating them altogether. If there are no known triggers, it is still important that children process their feelings with an adult with whom they trust.
Catch Your Child in the Act
One of the best ways to “reprogram” a child’s negative thinking is to catch him or her in the act of catastrophic thinking. It’s important for parents and other family members to be cognizant of the signs. For instance, if a child refuses to go to school, that’s an obvious sign of anxiety; however, it’s important to recognize the less obvious signs of catastrophic thinking, such as isolation or complaints of physical symptoms that could signal catastrophic thoughts. This is when the parent should begin a dialogue with the child about what he or she is feeling at the moment.
Parents can also encourage children to approach them when anxious thoughts arise. The important part of this process is to help the child rationally process these thoughts by questioning the child. Here are a few questions parents can ask their children when they are experiencing feelings of impending doom:
By talking through these catastrophic thoughts, children will eventually be able to independently implement the positive self-talk that is necessary to extinguish these thoughts altogether or at least soften them. It’s important to keep in mind that disastrous thoughts that arise out of anxiety are not rational; therefore, helping the child to see that their worries are unlikely to come to fruition takes time and practice for long-term success. The end goal is that children will eventually be able to catch themselves in the act to stop the thoughts before they get out of control.
Distract Them from Their Fears
This is an easy but effective technique for reshaping thoughts from a negative to a more positive focus. For instance, if your child is uncomfortable in social settings, redirect their thinking to music that is playing in the room or, if there is no music, sing a song together or count the number of people wearing blue shirts. Or, talk about something positive that happened recently or an upcoming event – anything that will take the focus off the catastrophic thoughts.
It’s important to note that the key to success with these techniques is consistency and time – don’t expect results overnight. Reshaping the mind’s thoughts is akin to reshaping a body; one cannot expect to become muscular and lean after just a couple of weeks, although there will probably be subtle signs of progress. The same holds true with reshaping thoughts; progress must be mastered in manageable bits. It’s important to celebrate small milestones with praise. On the other hand, when a child is not immediately successful, acceptance and understanding from the parent will set the foundation for future success.
Children with anxiety need to learn to reshape their perception of events. While anxious feelings can arise with or without obvious triggers, the techniques listed above are helpful in helping children deal with catastrophic thoughts, regardless of the situation. Once children learn how to transform their thoughts, this will, in turn, decrease (or hopefully, eliminate) the physical symptoms that accompany them. Once children gain control of their catastrophic thoughts and physical symptoms, they can effectively learn to manage the behaviors that prevent them from enjoying childhood to the fullest extent.