What worries kids at every age and how to chat about it

Growing up can be a worrying time for some children. There are so many new experiences and ideas, and this can make kids a little anxious. But how do worries begin and change at different ages? Psychologist Dr. Sasha Lynn looks at worries across childhood and adolescence, and how we can best tackle them with our kids. 

We all have worries from time to time. They can be brief fears that we can quieten quickly, or they can be big fears that are so loud we can’t hear anything else. Quite often worries can start manifesting during childhood. And this is completely normal. Worries are our part of the way we understand the world around us and helps us to make sense of new things. 
 
As parents, it can be a worry to worry about your child’s worries! What is normal? What is cause for concern? And how can we explain worry to our child, and support them in dealing with it? Let’s take a look at worries by age and stage, and how we can help.

Babies & toddlers

Those first few years of life are filled with so many new experiences and adjustments to the world around them some fears are par for the course. It’s important to note though that babies don’t tend to experience phobias, as anxieties often require an understanding of future-focused events. However babies certainly experience scares and uncertainties. Babies and toddlers can get upset at loud noises, such as the vacuum, or fast movements, and this is the stage where separation anxiety can crop up for the first time. 

How to help: Reassurance and gradual desensitisation can really help babies and toddlers face their fears. To do this, you can try explaining to them in a calm, reassuring, low tone, what the noise or cause of fear is, provide them with support (such as a cuddle) while you show them the cause of the loud noise or fear. If the worry seems to be triggered when you leave them, try short bouts of time away, saying goodbye before you leave and telling them that you will be back, this will teach them that you will come back.

Pre-school kids

Preschoolers are making gains in processing the world around them, but they are still at a very black and white level of understanding. What you see is what you get, and there’s no real understanding of what might be behind the door. Common fears at this age include costumes and masks (as children of this age find it hard to differentiate between what is real and what is make believe, and might worry you have disappeared), thunderstorms (and still some other loud noises), changes in routine, the dark, and dogs and animals.

How to help: Explain in clear and simple terms to your child about what is happening, or where they are going, to take the fear out of things. Plan ahead; what can you do to help prepare your child, and help them manage their fears? Does your child have a special toy or comforter that you can provide if there’s a thunderstorm, or if you go to a park where dogs might be, for example? Show your child that you’re on their side, and you are there for them when they’re worried.

Helping them to understand their feelings, by labelling them (e.g. “when that dog came over you looked pretty worried”) and even drawing a picture of them and labelling where in their bodies they feel different feelings (e.g. “I feel worry in my legs, I get a sore tummy and sometimes I cry”) can be very useful in managing strong feelings and fears.

Children thrive when their world feels safe and predictable, so keeping regular routines, being clear about behaviour and expectations (e.g. “it’s ok to be worried, it’s not ok to scream and hit others when you are worried though”) and supporting children to build more adaptive strategies (e.g. “how about we take three calm breaths, and have a cold drink of water before we look to scream and hit”) can not only help them, but help parents to cope.

Provide information and plan ahead, work through their concerns together, build emotional literacy to help kids understand what’s going on inside. Clear boundaries, and consistency to help establish a safe and secure world. 
a mother talking with her kids

School kids

Your child now is really starting to ‘get it’. They are understanding the world around them more, and what can impact on them. Their imaginations are growing and as such, so can their worries. Monsters, ghosts and things that go bump in the night can be prime causes for fears. Nightmares can begin to become prominent, and at this age, worries around doing things ‘right’, social worries, specific fears (spiders and heights for example) and something happening to the people they love, can all cause concern for your child.

How to help: Relaxation strategies can go a long way in reducing worries. Working with your child to learn calm breathing can slow the body down, so they can start to work on calming their minds down. Re-enforcing what has gone right, and re-framing worries is useful. Providing empathy and care but still being firm is the best plan of approach. Reading books such as “Silly Billy” and “Mr. Huff” can be really helpful as a talking point for worries and how to tackle them. 

Teens

This is the stage where many adult based anxieties can manifest; as thinking becomes more abstract and understanding grows about things that might happen in the future. The issues teenagers face tend to grow in complexity, and they way they start to think about them can become more complex, as they start to imagine a range of outcomes. “What ifs” can turn into clear worries about what others think about them, their body image and doing well at school. 
 
How to help: Allowing your teen to talk openly about their worries, and not rushing in to offer solutions. Teaching them to gently challenge their own thoughts, acknowledging the reality of teenagers problems, and providing empathy. Some helpful lines are “I can see how worried you are right now”, “what do you think you’re saying to yourself that’s leading to such worried feelings?” or “this situation sounds pretty full on, what are some ways we can work through it?”

Communication is key at this age, allowing teens a safe space to talk as much or as little as they need, but letting them know your job is to make sure they’re safe, and healthy and if you need to support a bit more, then you will. It’s important at this age to understand that it’s not the situation that makes us feel a certain way, but how we think about the situation. A sense of empowerment over worries can go a long way. 
 
All in all, worries are a common and for the most part are a normal part of development. However if you are noticing that your child’s worries appear to be over and above what you feel is typical for their age, or they are becoming more severe and intrusive, or if they are disrupting daily living and are greatly upsetting your child, please talk to your GP who, if required, can refer you to a mental health professional for the right support and assistance. 
 
There are also some great sites available for children and parents, with key information about worries at different ages, and there is a fantastic free online program developed by researchers in Australia called the Brave Program, with options for children and teens.

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