My nine-year-old son tells me he has a ‘guilty conscience’
We tell him to stop worrying, but it does not seem to be working
Help your son think more constructively about his worries
My son is nine and the eldest of three kids – he is a terrible worrier. At bedtime he can get so upset and tells me he as a “guilty conscience” and that his tummy is sore and that he “feels so bad about himself”. When he tells me what is at the bottom of all this worry it is usually something very minor or even silly – like he is worried that when he was offered a cake a a party three months ago he can’t remember if he said thank you. Or he might be worrying that he upset someone at a game in school when he told them to shut up in a joking way (even when there is no sign the other boy was upset). He gets so worked up.
We always reassure him that he is a wonderful kind boy who would do nothing bad at all. We tell him to stop worrying, but it does not seem to be working. It is very upsetting to us all
Your question highlights just how anxiety can affect a child’s and indeed an adult’s mind. Starting out from something small, through rumination and worry, the anxiety can grow in significance so that it can disturb sleep and even cause physical symptoms such as stomach ache. Further, though the child is indeed making a mountain out of a molehill, it is very hard to “reason away” these worries and they can continue to distress the child and those who care for him/ her. The key to helping a worrying child is to respond in a calm reassuring way, without getting “hooked into” the worry yourself. You want to be a calm counterbalance to their worry and anxiety, and in so doing so help them learn to pause and be calm themselves.
Be understanding even though his worry might be unreasonable
Be sympathetic and understanding when your son expresses a worry. You can acknowledge that the worry is not reasonable (deep down he knows this himself) but always be understanding. For example, you might say to him – “even though you might know there is no reason to worry, your mind can play tricks on you and make your worry anyway” or “I can sometimes worry like that about silly things in the past – the mind can be funny like that, it can make a mountain out of a molehill”.
Focus on your son’s strengths
Often people who worry, feel bad that they are worrying and this makes them feel worse. A way to counterbalance this is to focus on your son’s strengths. For example you might say “it is only because you are a sensitive boy, thinking about other people’s feelings, that you are feeling this way . . . though in this situation I think you are being oversensitive and have nothing to worry about.”
Be there to listen
It is important to be there to listen to your son. It is best that he has time to express his worries, with you being there to counter-balance them rather than him having no one to talk to and repressing his feelings. Children can get relief from having someone listen to them and this can take the power out of many worries.
Take some time to listen to his worries daily and to help him think them through. I usually suggest to parents to set up a daily “worry time” with anxious children, when they will take 15 -30 minutes to listen and problem-solve worries with their children. But they will keep the time limited and not talk about worries at other times – “lets talk about that later as we have agreed . . . now let’s only talk about fun things!” Creating a specific “worry” or “problem solving” time has the advantage of making sure your son gets the time he needs, while helping boundary the worries so they don’t become dominant.
Encourage your son to problem solve
Help your son think more constructively about his worries. Ask good questions that help him think differently. Instead of ruminating about a situation in the past, ask him how he might handle a similar situation in the future. For example, ask him what he might say in the future if he was worried he might have hurt a person’s feelings by a joke (eg he could check if he offended the child and apologise if he had). Or if he forgot to say thank you when given something, he could go back to the person later and say thank you. Focusing on what he has learnt from social situations in the past is a great way of building his social skills and confidence.
Encourage your son to learn to let go of worries
Take time also to help him think through how best to handle worries in the past that he can’t change. For example, you could ask him: “Aside from resolving to do something different next time, is it helping you in any way to keep worrying about it?” Most children agree that the rumination is unhelpful despite feeling trapped in this cycle. Once this is acknowledged you can go on to explore how he can let go of these worries – “how can you stop yourself worrying and focus on other things? Lots of things like relaxation, physical exercise, changing thoughts and mindfulness can help.
It can be useful to draw on the kind sensitive side of his nature to help him to be more self-compassionate. For example, you could ask him: “What would you say to a friend who was worried like you by things in the past? What message would you give them? What would you advise them to do?
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering courses on parenting children and teenagers in Cork in Dublin starting in October 2017. See solutiontalk.ie for details