Helping Kids When They Worry
As kids grow, they face many new things. Starting school. Meeting new friends. Learning to swim. Competing in sports. Learning to drive. Each new thing can feel like a big step forward.
When kids and teens face new things, they often feel a mix of emotions. Facing something new — even when it's a good thing — can be stressful. It's natural to feel excited about what's ahead — and to worry about whether they're ready to handle it.
Worry isn't all bad. It can be helpful as long as it doesn't last too long, become too intense, or happen too often.
Worry is a caution signal. It's a natural response to a big event, change, or challenge. Worry is a way of thinking and feeling ahead: "Am I ready for this? What's going to happen? Is it safe to go ahead? What do I need to do to get ready? How will I do it? What if I feel nervous?"
Thinking through the part they worry about — calmly and with support from parents — can help kids get ready for what's ahead. When kids feel prepared, they can focus on the part they're looking forward to.
How Adults Can Help
Doing new things (that are safe and right for their age) helps kids learn, gain skills and confidence.
Parents can help kids and teens face new things without letting worry hold them back. They can:
- make it easy for kids and teens to open up to share what's on their minds
- calmly listen, show support, and talk things through
- guide them to think of how to handle what's ahead
- make sure they don't avoid things because of undue worry
- help them feel capable
- show you believe in them — this helps kids know they can handle what's ahead
Here are some ways to do this:
- Ask what's on their minds. Help kids label what they think and feel. They might not always have a lot to say. And they might not always want to talk about what's on their minds. But let kids know you're open to listening and talking any time.
- Spend time with them. Do this every day, even if it's just a few minutes. Do things together that you both enjoy. Go for a walk, cook, eat, play — or just hang out. Find ways to smile and laugh together. This keeps the bond between you strong and positive. And it creates moments for kids to open up naturally.
- Listen with patience. When kids and teens want to talk, listen with your full attention. Give them time to put their thoughts and feelings into words. Ask questions to hear more. Don't be too quick to give advice. Let them confide. Listen calmly to what they have to say.
- Validate. It can help to repeat back what your child said. Let them know it makes sense to you. Let them know that you understand what they're saying and what they're worried about.
Don't dismiss worries by saying, "There's nothing to worry about." This can make kids think they shouldn't feel the way they do. When you accept how kids feel, it's easier for them to share their worries and feel understood. When you're calm, it helps them stay calm.
- Help kids think of how to handle things. Don't jump in to solve things for them. Instead, invite kids and teens to think of what they can do. Support their good ideas. Talk it through together. Talk about how well things can turn out. Offer to help as needed.
- Encourage. Follow up to find out how things are going. Praise your child's effort and progress. Show you're proud. Encourage them to keep trying at the things they're working on. Remind them that steady effort and practice helps them get better at things. Help them relax so that stress and worry don't build up.
- Help them expect good things. Don't dwell on worries. Talk about the good things, too. Ask them what's going well and what they look forward to. Ask about the good things that happen in their day. Tell them about the good things in your day, too. Give more attention to good things than you give to problems and worries. Let worry take a back seat most of the time.
- Soothe and comfort. At times, kids and teens may feel overwhelmed by worry. In those moments, trying to talk it through isn't likely to help. It might help more to offer comfort and understanding. Help them feel calm. Remind them that you're there to help them through things that happen. Teach them to use calm breathing to settle themselves when they are upset.
What if My Child Worries too Much?
Some kids and teens have worries that cause too much distress, last too long, or happen too often. Kids who worry too much have trouble doing well in school, at home, and with friends. They may feel anxious or afraid. They may avoid things they worry about. Or they may get stuck thinking about worries they can't cope with. Worry like this could be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
If your child has worry, stress, or anxiety that seems too hard for them to handle, talk with your child's doctor or a mental health doctor. Childhood anxiety and problems with worry can get better with the right treatment and support.