What Do Children Worry About and How Can Grown Ups Help?

When I was young, I worried so much that my parents called me Worrywart and bought me a stuffed toy with the same name. It wasn’t the best strategy—I was left feeling bewildered and wondering how to not worry—but what did parents know then? Research from the field of developmental emotion science finds that children who understand and manage their feelings are happier, have better relationships, and do better in school. But as a developmental psychologist I’ve often wished for resources to help parents deal with worrying in their children. So I was pretty excited when I found a lovely picture book recently at a professional conference: Is a Worry Worrying You?  by Ferida Wolff and Harriet May Savitz. This light-hearted problem solving “manual,” based on good emotion science, introduces young children to the idea that worry may be more optional and flexible than they believe—and that they may be able to do something about the suffering it causes them.

As a parent, I’m moved by the realistic examples in the book; as a developmental psychologist, I’m impressed by the sophistication of the advice contained it its slim 16 pages.

The cover illustrates the idea that we are more than our worries, and that worry is something that comes to us like an unwelcome visitor: “It doesn’t ask if it can enter. It just barges in. And it will stay as long as you let it.”

The feeling and qualities of worry are named and described. One of the first steps in managing a feeling is to recognize it—name it to tame it, we say: "A worry is a thought that stops you from having fun, from feeling good, from being happy." "Anyone can have a worry. Parents. Teachers. Brothers. Sisters. Friends." "You can feel tired from a worry. Or sad. Or sick. A worry can feel like a heavy sack is on your back. Only it isn’t there."

Most importantly, the authors offer many strategies for problem-solving. Research shows that young children ages 3-6 tend to ruminate, or spin their wheels, so they, especially, can benefit from help in problem-solving.  And older children who worry a lot believe they can’t solve the problem, though their problem-solving skills in other areas are equal to those of children who worry very little.

Read More