We often associate stress with adulthood, but our youth face plenty of challenges and changes. In fact, the American Psychological Association reports 42% of youth experience stress, but feel they don’t have the tools to manage it effectively. In small amounts, stress can be good. Butterflies before a soccer game, for example, can help your child feel more focused and ready to play. But, excessive stress can affect the way a child thinks, acts, and feels. Parents can help their children manage these moments by teaching and implementing the “4 D’s:”
4 D’s To Reduce Anxiety
Set aside a specific time to actively talk about your child’s worries. Ask them questions to show that you care and that you are listening (even if the worries seem “silly” or “unreasonable” to you). You may even have them write or draw their worries in a designated “worry” journal.
Setting aside specific time creates a surety that the conversation will take place, which can help your child minimize obsessive thinking in the short-term. Parents unknowingly use this strategy of “delay” often – like when your child asks for a cookie and you let them know they can have one after dinner.
Have you ever noticed how if you try not to think about something, it can make the intrusive thought virtually impossible to ignore? Psychologists have a name for this phenomena: Ironic Process Theory. Your child’s inability to reduce certain thoughts can be worsened during times of stress, especially if he or she is prone to anxiety or obsessive thoughts.
Although ordering your child not to think about something won’t work, giving them something else to do instead can be effective. Divert their attention. The more involved the task is, the better because the brain will be more engaged. Invite them to play Scrabble, join a game of dodgeball (pay attention, or you’ll get hit in the face!), or practice that piano that’s gathering dust in the corner.
Practicing self-care is an underutilized coping strategy; one we often neglect in teaching our children. Spend calming, relaxed time with your child. Pick activities that they and you enjoy and take time to talk about how they make you feel. This helps them to learn to be “present” and is a way of modeling the importance of relaxation to your child.
I often use this technique with clients who excessively worry. Ask your child to explain what they are worried will happen. Ask them what the worst-case scenario might be. Then ask them to explain how they would respond if their greatest worry played out. When they articulate these thoughts, they are likely to emotionally process them in a healthy way (as opposed to keeping them bottled up inside).
After discussing with your child what they are most worried about, ask them what is most likely to happen. Examining the difference between what is likely to happen with what they fear will happen may help them realize their worries are largely unfounded.
When we can name it, we can tame it.
Using the 4 D’s to identify and address worries head-on will help provide your child with the language and tools they need to manage whatever life throws their way. If your child’s worries continue to interfere with their emotional well-being, you may want to consider seeking out a therapist who can equip your child with other tools to cope.