How to Talk to Kids About Outsmarting Worry

This podcast focuses on talking to kids about outsmarting worry.

Special Guest: Dawn Huebner, PhD

Do your children or young teens get nervous? Scared? Jittery? Uneasy? Agitated? Stressed out? Well, everyone gets worried sometimes. Some people are able to move through worry fairly easily while others find that worry can get in their way. Does that happen to your kids? In certain situations, it can happen to mine. Some kids worry about school, tests, or where they’re going to sit at lunch. Others worry about bugs or thunder storms, bad dreams or being away from their parents. As an adult, sometimes our kids’ worries seem strange or illogical and we can get frustrated or overwhelmed, annoyed or even worried about their worry. We need some tips and scripts to help our kids tame those jitters- especially when we aren’t there to help the, Well, we are in luck-  my next guest is going to help us talk to kids and help kids understand and outsmart worry.

Dawn Huebner, PhD, is the author of the award-winning What to Do When You Worry Too Much, the brand new Outsmarting Worry, and 6 other books for children that have been translated into 21 languages and are nearing the 1 million mark in sales. Her work has been featured on The Today Show, WebMD, Parents Magazine and other news and media outlets. Dr. Huebner gave a TEDx talk on Re-Thinking Anxiety, and is a popular speaker for both parenting and professional groups. She is based in Exeter, NH, where she specializes in the treatment of anxious children and their parents.

The podcast provides:

  • Why anxiety can be so illogical
  • How anxieties grow and become fears- whose fault is this?
  • How you get a child to do something s/he is afraid to do
  • Why it’s not enough to simply reassure a child
  • How we can help a child to manage anxiety differently
  • How breathing can help- and why children are often resistant to it.
  • Scripts: What to say to help your child outsmart worry
  • How to support our children and help them outsmart worry
  • Are there ways to prevent worry before they start? Can we prepare?

Important Messages:

  • Anxiety might feel illogical to someone—but makes sense to the anxious person who feels what might happen…will happen.
  • Anxious brains over estimate the probability that something might happen—and how serious it will be.
  • Safety behaviors: When our brain makes an imprint of all of the details around a situation when a person feels that they may be hurt—or if they actually got hurt. It helps us remember the details. It’s protective. It’s a good thing- but it can generalize too broadly. An alarm goes on in our head when those details arise- even if it’s not anxious.
  • When an anxious child gets nervous, a danger alarm gets pulled in her head and she isn’t able to think clearly. She can’t access the details that usually can—the things that are in place that keep her safe. So they might avoid or assurance-seeking. It then locks those things into place- and then the child feels these things are necessary—the assurance and the avoidance.
  • Externalize worry- like it’s a little beast that is trying to scare your child.
  • When we reassure our child or help our child avoid what they are scared of, it feeds the worry beast. When we avoid, it strengthens the idea that whatever scares you is actually a danger.
  • Name your worry. Teach a child to see it as separate.
  • Talk to your children about their fears—and externalize the fear—when they are not in the midst of dealing with an intense worry or panic.
  • This worry beast- this personified being- pulls an alarm in your brain to make you think that you’re in danger when you really are not. The more you listen to it as if it’s true, the more you strengthen it. We need to learn to talk back to it and challenge it.
  • Get your child’s agreement to push back against their worry.
  • Exposure can help- to help tolerate the thing that scares them. It needs to be intentional.
  • Safety learning- helps child see, through exposure, that the thing that they were afraid of, is safe.
  • Exposure: Doing the things that scare you on purpose without safety mechanisms.
  • Exposure is like jumping into a pool and getting used to the water. It’s not scary- it’s uncomfortable.
  • Kids can use calming breathing but they should couple it with other strategies like talking back to their worry.
  • We can feel a lot of things at once- and we can turn our attention to the positive emotion.
  • You can expect that worry will come up.
  • Kids know you can’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen- so help them to find a way to tolerate it. Focus on coping and life goes on.
  • Talk about being brave- to be afraid and do it anyway.
  • Helicopter parenting is not healthy for anxious kids because it validates the fear and tells the children that they are not capable.
  • Anxious kids trigger their parents. When they get nervous, parents get panicky because we don’t want our kids to be scared or uncomfortable.
  • Worry can disguise itself- so recognize it over time.
  • You don’t want to accommodate the worry but you don’t want to be punitive to your child who is going through some anxiety.

Notable Quotables:

  • “Anxiety is not about what is happening. It’s about what might happen. Children start to think about what bad things could happen and in an anxious brain, possible is the same thing as probable. So if something bad might happen it starts to feel like something will happen! It gets hugely exaggerated- not only the probability but how bad the bad thing is going to be.”
  • “Reassurance feeds the worry beast. It helps a child feel better right in the moment but it gives a big hearty meal to this little creature. Then the child becomes dependent on the your reassurance.”
  • “Teach children to name their worry and how to see it as ‘separate.’ This way, children can learn to disconnect from their worry, talk back to it, challenge it and disobey it.”
  • “The more you listen to your worry as if what it’s saying is true and valid, the more you strengthen it. We need to teach children to talk back to it and challenge it instead.”
  • “Through safety learning, children learn through repeated experience that the thing that they were afraid of is actually safe.”
  • “Most kids who are not in the moment of anxiety are able to recognize that worry is really causing a lot of trouble.”
  • “With worry, we can desensitize or get used to something that is initially uncomfortable for us through exposure. It’s like jumping into a cold swimming pool and getting used to the water. You can either jump in or gradually lower yourself step by step.”
  • “Breathing helps to calm the amygdala—the alarm system in the brain. Sometimes that alarm system gets triggered accidently and breathing is one of the helpful ways we can calm that down.”
  • “Worry isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Worry happens for important reasons. It alerts us that we need to pay attention. Parents need to talk to kids about the fact that the goal is not to wipe out all worry. The goal is to not let worry stop you from doing things.”
  • “We can teach kids that when ‘worry thoughts’ come up, we can shift our attention or change the channel to the more positive emotions we’re feeling at the same time.”
  • Expect that worry will come up. Be ready for it and have in mind the steps of what you are going to do: First; recognize it. Second; talk back to it and third; find a way to challenge it. If parents and kids are clear that those are the three steps, then when worry shows up it’s easy to click into those steps.”
  • “The bad thing about reassurance is that the bad thing could happen. The things that kids are afraid of could happen. They could get stung by the bee. They could get the teacher who yells. Something could come up when you are away. When you are relying on reassurance, kids know that you don’t have a way of guaranteeing that. It’s important for kids to learn how to tolerate uncertainty—the possibility that a bad thing might happen.”
  • “The way kids hear ‘it’s going to be okay’ is that nothing bad is going to happen. We need to be careful that what we’re really saying is; “I have faith in you that you’re going to be able to handle things and there are always helpers around to help you.”
  • “One of the single most important things parents can do is pause. Rather than being immediately reactive, I think it’s important for parents to take a moment to calm themselves internally.”
  • “Worry is kind of like a cult leader. It tries to get people to obey its rules. Parents need to remember that they are stronger than the worry and they are not going to enter into the cult and they’re not going to allow their child to be a part of that cult.”