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Challenge: Expert Advice

Time to Worry: Helping our kids (and us) through anxiety-producing times.

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Sometimes a child comes into his appointment knowing he is getting a shot, forewarned by a parent. Other times, the parent wants me to warn the child a poke is coming and answer questions.

And sometimes, the parent wants to take more of a last-minute surprise-attack approach and tell the child right before the needle goes in, since anxiety builds the longer the child stays in the hamster wheel of worry.

One day, there was a child who knew he was getting shots. His mother had prepared him and answered his questions before they came. Every time the subject would change in his check-up (from growth to behavior to sleep to development), the child would look into his mom’s eyes and ask, “Is it time to worry yet?”

We looked at the growth chart and then he asked his mom, “Is it time to worry yet?” “No, not yet,” she reassured him.

We discussed how his preschool was going. “Is it time to worry yet?” “No, not yet.”

We talked about how he was eating, sleeping, and getting along with his siblings and peers. “Is it time to worry yet?” “No, not yet.”

I examined the child and asked the mom if she had any further questions, which she did not. “Is it time to worry yet?”

“Yes,” his mother answered, “now it’s time to worry. It’s time to get your shots.”

This interaction has stayed with me because I thought it was such a healthy way for this mother to help her son through what was surely an anxiety-inducing situation.

I once heard a wise psychologist say something like “anxiety is a bully, and his best friend is anticipation,” and I have used that with my patients since I learned it years ago. When something puts your child on the Worry Bus, the longer she has to anticipate the scary situation -- whether it is starting a new school, an upcoming big test, going to camp for the first time, or getting her shots -- the worse her anxiety can get.

Giving your child a designated time to worry, on the other hand, acknowledges that there is a time to worry and a time to stay calm. This strategy also affirms for the child that getting shots is, indeed, a valid concern.

At the same time, the mother was able to tell the child, “this is something to worry about. It is scary, but I believe you can face this fear and take care of your shots, and I will be here with you when it happens.”

This strategy helped during the minute that the child was getting the shots. But, more importantly, I believe it will help this child for his lifetime.

Every single day there is something to worry about. Allowing yourself to appropriately worry is like giving the worry an on-and-off switch. These two minutes I will worry about getting my shots. But worrying about them for two months prior to the injections sends me down a rabbit hole of despair.

How many other times will this skill be helpful in this child’s life? As a parent, how many times have I myself worried about a new experience my child is facing? The first time I dropped them off at school and walked away, I could have drowned in what-ifs of worry. What if her feelings were hurt? What if people were mean to him? What if he fell off the playground equipment?

If I am drowning in my own anxiety as a parent, I cannot model for my kids how to handle a hard situation. I would have never been able to live my life if I let myself sit outside their preschool/elementary/middle/high school door worrying about every little thing that could happen to them while I was away.

Now, as an adult, I am still trying to master the art of knowing when to worry. I can find something to fret about in almost every situation. My family and friends can tell you that I can imagine every possible bad outcome from a situation: bike riding around Houston (getting hit by a car); jumping into a waterfall (head trauma on a rock), swimming in a pond (brain-eating amoeba) and so on.

But now, thanks to this mother, I have words for my children and helpful words for myself, too. It’s not time to worry about that. No need to go down a worst-case scenario path and worry until we have something to worry about.

And, to quote Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling, “my philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.”

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