Let kids feel uncertainty, learn to solve problems, author says

Worry is natural and even helpful, but when it’s fuelled by imagination and allowed free rein, it leads to anxiety, says psychotherapist Lynn Lyons.

Lyons is the author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children.

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Lyons spoke to St. Michaels University School parents, faculty and students last week as part of its third annual brain awareness week. The clinical social worker from Concord, New Hampshire, also spoke at St. Margaret’s School the previous week.

Lyons' takeaway message is simple: Worry has a place in our lives. We can’t eliminate it. But we don’t have to give it control, either. And it’s not who we are.

Research shows our brains are “incredibly malleable,” Lyons said. To that end, we are best advised to briefly acknowledge worry, externalize it, then neutralize it.

“It’s not about eliminating worry,” Lyons said. “It’s really just about being able to differentiate when worry is giving you a worry you need to pay attention to, and when worry is just noise.”

The more one tries to avoid or reason away worry, the stronger it gets, Lyons said.

“I don’t say to kids ‘Don’t worry’ or ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ ” Lyons said. “I say, of course it will show up in its predictable way. Your job is to have a response to it.”

In the U.S. — and Canada is catching up quickly — anxiety is the main reason parents take a child to a mental-health professional, said Lyons in a phone interview.

About one in 10 kids suffers from an anxiety disorder. Some peg that number to be as high as one in five, she said.

Lyons isn’t sure if anxiety in children is on the rise, but she says what is on the rise is worry in the current parenting generation.

“We are worried parents. We are fearful parents and we are projecting a lot of our fears onto our kids,” Lyons said.

“That’s what I really see. Parents who are afraid about what is going to happen to their kids. Parents worried their kids are going to fail. Parents being involved in every aspect of their kids’ lives.

“That increases kids’ worry and anxiety.”

In “catastrophic parenting,” parents feel compelled to explain to their kids the extreme possible consequences of disobeying a certain safety rule.

If these alarming examples keep them safer, it’s only at the cost of paralyzing children with the same fears.

“We convey that the world is a dangerous place, which makes them feel insecure in the world, and we convey [that] they need us to manage things for them,” Lyons said.

Worried parents also err by stepping in too early and fending off every danger in a child’s path, or taking over every difficult task.

“The message that anxious parents give to anxious kids is that they really aren’t competent,” Lyons said. Yet psychologists argue that feeling competent is what develops confidence.

If you are an anxious parent, you are six to seven times more likely to have an anxious child, Lyons said.

What parents and kids need to understand is that worry seeks comfort and certainty, she said. So, when parents step in too quickly and go to great lengths to provide certainty, they are empowering worry and disempowering their children.

“What we know about anxious kids, if we look at the research, is that they are not good at tolerating uncertainty,” Lyons said. “They tend to score lower on independent problem solving and score lower on autonomy scales.”

No matter how many interventions are made, or how many questions are answered in the pursuit of comfort and certainty, it’s impossible to close the “certainty gap,” Lyons said.

Worry won’t be satiated, as this common scenario shows: “ ‘Mom, what if you are late to pick me up?’ ‘Then find an adult.’ ‘What if I can’t find an adult?’ ‘Then phone me on my cellphone.’ ‘What if it’s not plugged in?’ ”

“When worry runs amok is when worry and imagination team up and generate catastrophic scenarios and kids [or parents] get sucked into imagining these bad things happening,” Lyons said.

The trick is to let kids experience a degree of uncertainty and learn to reassure themselves and problem-solve.

“I talk to parents about backing off, letting your kid be uncomfortable, letting your kid feel uncertain, letting them screw up, letting it get messy, letting them fail, because we learn through experience,” Lyons said.

To neutralize worry, the biggest trick is to separate the worrying process from the content.

“How we worry, or how we don’t worry, or how we manage our worried thoughts, is a broader life skill than trying to fix all the possible things that kids can worry about,” Lyons said.

“When we try to address and change the content, it’s like playing whack a mole. Something else just pops up.”

Lyons advises externalizing one’s worry, for example, by giving it a name — perhaps Steve. Acknowledge Steve, thank him for sharing his information, and then bid him goodbye.

Heather Clayton, director of learning at St. Michaels University School, said Lyons’ message was “hugely valuable.”

“The simplicity of her message is: Worry will show up and what we can do is not give it power or make it bigger,” Clayton said.

Lyons said it’s understandable that today’s parents worry as they do, but it’s unfounded.

“We are really the first generation that didn’t have the Internet at all, and now it’s a part of our world and so we hear reports of every horrible thing that has happened ... yet in the U.S., and probably in Canada, too, it’s never been safer to be a child … in terms of drug abuse, violence, recovery from illness, progress made in cancer and survival rates.

“The kidnapping rates haven’t changed since the ’70s,” Lyons said.


For more information, go to lynnlyonsnh.com.


Focus on process, not content

To neutralize worry, the biggest trick is to separate the worrying process from the content, then focus on the process, says author Lynn Lyons.

Content (not good)
• Focus on and talk about how to fix a specific problem
• Reassure about that specific problem
• Give data, stats, rational information
• Go over plans and specifics repeatedly

Process (good)
• Focus on how worry operates and what it’s up to
• Cue “worry-managing” strategies
• Be general: “That sounds like worry to me…”
• Prompt independent, internal reassurance and problem solving
Source: Lynn Lyonsê

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