My son gets anxious and worked up about things and this worries me
Ask the Expert: ‘His anxiety does wear on me and sometimes I react impatiently’
I try to reassure him that I am the parent and he does not have to worry about these things but it does not stop him. Photograph: iStock
My son who is eight is a really great lad who I am proud of. However, he can get quite anxious and worked up about things and this worries me.
For example, when we are driving out somewhere, he is constantly telling me to slow down, worried that I am going to crash. I do drive carefully and especially slowly when he is in the car, but he can get really agitated and this can distract me from driving and even be dangerous. Another thing is that he is always worried about his little brother, that something is going to happen to him or that he is going to run off and get lost or knocked down.
He is much more worried about these things than me. I try to reassure him that I am the parent and he does not have to worry about these things but it does not stop him. His anxiety does wear on me and sometimes I react impatiently – especially in the car.
He reacts the same way with his mother but she might be calmer than me. What can we do to help him? I just don’t want him to worry so much.
Lots of children are worriers and anxiety in one shape or form is one of the most common childhood problems. The problem with anxiety and worries is that they can’t be easily reasoned with or reassured away, especially in the middle of an anxiety meltdown. When your son feels his worries, it is likely to be a visceral reaction in his body that he can’t simply turn off. Even though I don’t doubt that you drive safely, once your son’s anxiety is triggered in the car, his worries can flood in and it will be hard for him to calm down.
It is hard to always respond calmly and empathically to a child’s worry. This is especially the case in the heat of the moment when you are in a rush or under pressure. Dealing with your son’s anxiety in the car must be difficult especially when you have to attend to driving and his agitation can be very distracting and potentially dangerous. Though easier said than done, in those instances, try to find a way of keeping calm – the calmer you are, the more helpful this will be to help him calm down. For example, you might repeat a mantra in a gentle tone of voice “we are driving safely, we will be fine” and then pull back and focus on the driving. Then it is important to follow up later with your son (when he is calmer) and talk through a plan about managing his anxiety in the car.
In talking things through with your son, it is very important to be empathic and understanding. Often, it is secondary reaction to the original worry that maintains the problem. For example, your son might first worry about a car crash, but then worry about having the worry in the first place – he might berate himself for being “mad” or “stupid” and this reaction just makes things worse.
Try to let him know you understand what is going on for him. For example you might say: “lots of children can get worries like that . . . the mind is funny that way. Once you start thinking of worries it is hard to stop”. Perhaps you might be able empathise with him by remembering an experience in your own past when you had an anxiety reaction in a situation or when your own worries took over.
Usually, worry is a sign of an underlying strength that can be useful to explore. For example, your son’s worry about driving reveals his caution and consideration about safety, which means he will be less likely to be reckless or impulsive when he grows up. You can acknowledge this when you talk about the problem – “it is great the way that you want everyone to be safe”.
Your son’s worry about his brother reveals his care and love for his sibling “it is great that you are looking out for your brother”. By acknowledging these strengths you help your son relax and think differently about what is going on. The goal is to help him apply these strengths more constructively – instead of just imagining what can go wrong, perhaps he can imagine and plan how to make things go well.
Agree a plan with your son
The fact that your son is a worrier indicates potential problem-solving skills (eg anticipating and thinking through issues) which you can use to help him address the problem. In sitting down to problem solve it is useful to: 1) first listen to his feelings and give him space to express his fears, 2) explain the problems with the worries, eg how his agitation can distract you when driving, and 3) explore solutions with him – what can we do to make things go better in the car? Solutions might include, learning to use relaxation skills, developing his own safety mantra in the car, distracting himself by focusing on other things etc. I have several other articles on The Irish Times site including a six-part series on overcoming anxiety that outline a range of other strategies that you can consult. Do seek further professional support if you remain concerned.
– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books, including Positive Parenting. See solutiontalk.ie for details of courses and articles.