Helping Children Cope with Worries

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Since children's worries often interfere with their learning, it is helpful to understand their concerns. I asked 320 third graders to list one or two things they think about when they can not sleep. The results indicate that children today are anxious about the following:

One hundred and twenty-four children wrote that they worried about their mom or dad never being home, being sick or hurt, dying, coming home late, being mad, working too hard, living in another state, being sad, having an accident, getting in fights, doing something bad, being lost, wrecking the house, hitting them, ignoring them, running away, or getting a divorce. The most poignant comment was, “My first mom smothered my little brother because she was on drugs.” Another child wrote, “I have not seen my dad in six years. I think he does not care for me.”

Eighty-four children reported worrying about their brother, sister or grandparent dying or getting sick, lost, or hurt, or having to go to the hospital. A solemn statement was, “My brother died of crib death.” One child wrote, “I worry about my brother because he does what the crowd does and he might take drugs.” Another stated, “My sister was in a car accident and I thought she was going to die.”

Forty-two children wrote about nighttime when they have scary dreams about movies they had seen. They reported having nightmares of monsters or ghosts hiding under their bed or in the closet and killing them with a knife. One wrote, “When I go to sleep it’s going to come out and kill me.”

Thirty-three worried about their pets feeling bad, being sick or hurt, or dying. A child stated, “My dog died and it keeps me from doing my work and from sleeping at night.”

Twenty-nine worried about school. They wrote about failing, not getting their work finished, getting bad grades, and about their teacher not liking them.

Eleven children reported worrying about friends being sad, hurt, taking their toys, hurting them, picking on them, refusing to play with them.

Other worries listed ten or less times concerned robbers trying to kill them or their family; themselves getting sick, hurt, lost, or dying; relatives getting hurt or dying; fire or tornadoes; snakes or spiders; sick or crippled people; poor people who have no food or clothes.

How can we help children cope with their worries so that they will be ready to learn?

  • Provide a place where each child feels valued, safe and secure.

  • Offer opportunities for children to write down or discuss their concerns or feelings.

  • Take time to listen and respond with compassion.

  • Encourage the children to make healthy living choices including eating healthy food and saying “no” to tobacco or alcohol.

  • Stress the importance of getting enough rest and sleep each night.

  • Teach them friendship skills, so that they can develop supportive peer relationships.

  • Help the children understand that some circumstances CANNOT be changed, so they must be accepted, like death, divorce, or illness. Help them identify things they CAN change.

  • Teach them relaxation techniques like slow, deep breathing, counting backwards, or tensing the body and then relaxing.

  • Discuss positive coping skills like walking, playing, exercising, jumping rope, reading, resting, writing down or telling someone their problems.

  • Teach them to use positive self-talk like:

      “Everyone feels good and bad, now and then.”
      “Even though I make mistakes, I can do many things well.”
      “Nobody’s life is perfect; everyone has problems.”
      “Everyone makes mistakes, but what is important is to keep trying.”
      “Since I only have one body, I am going to take care of it.”
      “Worrying does not help, so I will think of good things.”
      “Since I care about me, I will make good choices.”

  • Provide opportunities for them to talk about the future in a positive light, picture themselves being successful, and set goals.

  • Emphasize that their job is to work hard in school, be prepared, responsible, honest, tenacious, and cooperative. Stress that with an education and positive character traits, they can fulfill their dreams.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website []. 1/01

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