The problem of worry

Families glancing at the news find much to potentially worry about, especially during the current pandemic. Julie Robinson explores how parents can help children tackle their worries through greater perspective.

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Families glancing at the news find much to potentially worry about. It is one of the challenges of parenting to help our children make sense of the world and train our minds so that we can be resilient at times of stress and achieve a balanced view of the world's threats. The management of a propensity to worry is an essential part of our emotional toolkit.

There might be a tendency these days for families to plug-in to individual devices, cocooned in media bubbles rather than sit around the dining table and share genuine conversation. Talking helps to get issues into perspective by sharing views and opinions and wondering about the reliability of our sources of information. Being a good parent means modelling being grown-up and helping solve problems. That includes developing mental resilience when external forces might be encouraging panic.

We are told by Anxiety UK (anxiety.org.uk): 'Recent research suggests that as many as one in six young people will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives, this means that up to five people in your class may be living with anxiety, whether that be OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), social anxiety and shyness, exam stress, worry or panic attacks.'

Today's children seem to be developing greater awareness of mental health issues and the vocabulary to describe and discuss their feelings. While this should make it easier to get support, it can take years for an individual to feel able to seek help. As parents, we must always encourage our children to talk about how they are feeling.

Media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has at times been terrifying. It became a main topic of conversation across the country, including in schools. It is human nature to be alert to potential threats, that's part of the survival instinct, but as a community we seem to spiral towards dramatic and catastrophic thinking that can only feed the anxieties of our nervous planet. There is a Zen proverb which is worth reflecting on: 'Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere.'

By it's very nature, rolling 24-hour news will make any crisis feel more dramatic and therefore potentially upsetting. The World Health Organisation released advice on how to protect your mental health at the start the coronavirus outbreak and one of the suggestions was to limit the amount of news and to be careful what you read. Anxiety is often linked to a need for control yet, in a situation like a pandemic, there are far too many unknowns, which take their toll on sufferers.

"...remind children that feelings of anxiety are perfectly normal. ...ensure that your children can share whatever is bothering them."

As parents, we can learn from this. We should know that our children feed on the anxieties they perceive around them and follow suit. So, however anxious we might feel ourselves, we need to ensure that we are as far as possible models of objectivity, providing clarity and a sense of proportion, explaining to our children the realities of perceived threats and the worries that come with the human condition.

We need to remind children that feelings of anxiety are perfectly normal. Make it alright to show concern and ensure that your children can share whatever is bothering them. At the same time, encourage them to double-check their sources so that they can weigh-up the facts and appreciate risk. For instance, how big a threat is a particular news story, compared with, say, crossing the road, a risk we take regularly?

You might need to find the right time to have conversations with your children about their (and your) worries. Such conversations might suit a car journey so that you can choose your words without worrying too much about body language and eye contact. Aim to remain alert to the concerns your children have and the impact it might have on them.

One parent told me recently that his daughter asked, seemingly out of the blue and quite matter-of-factly: 'Is Granny going to die?' How do you know what your children are thinking about? You might wish to put family time aside to give them the space to feel comfortable sharing these concerns with you. Try to get the balance right, taking their worries seriously and neither over-reacting nor under-playing their concerns. If children experience panic attacks or other serious effects of anxiety-related feelings then seek professional help. Even in doing so, it is important to sympathise at the same time as not to overreact.

Hans Rosling's Factfulness begins with a quiz testing our assumptions about trends and dangers across the globe and this is a questionnaire that can be completed as a family. It provides a set of unbiased answers based on real data to show that we habitually tend towards negative bias in our world view and usually fail to notice how the human condition is improving across generations. The exercise helps us to appreciate human progress rather than fall into the trap of believing dramatic headlines. It is so important to provide children with strategies for maintaining perspective.

The only thing we can be sure of is that we can't be absolutely sure of very much at all. As much as we might like to believe that we are in control of our lives, certainty is a rarity.

Julie Robinson Photo

Julie Robinson is Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Schools Council (ISC).

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