Let me begin by saying that I am not a mental health professional in any way. I have no counseling or medical training. I am a mom of a child who worries and sometimes that worry gets so big it becomes anxiety. I am sharing today some of the things I have learned about talking with my child about worry and his own illustration from the wonderful Marvel Cinematic Universe!
The Multi-Verse of Anxiety and His Worry
I was driving in the car with my son on the way to mandatory school testing. We do public school at home so going to a testing center was making him worry. I took advantage of the semi-distraction free time in the car to address the worry and anxiety he may have been feeling. I wanted to share his unique insight to maybe help you understand an anxious child and how their mind works. If you are a Marvel fan like us, chances are you are familiar with the movies I mention below. If not, I highly recommend watching them together and then maybe a conversation as to how they connect to worry!
The conversation went like this:
Me: Hey buddy, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about why you may worry about things. You are a special kid who thinks about all the possible outcomes of what you are about to do. You think of any little thing that could go wrong and what could happen right?
(Note that I am not speaking of his worry in a negative way nor dismissing it as silly. What is a silly worry to us as adults can be a huge stress on a child)
Him: Yes I do! I think “If I make this decision then this could happen or if I make this decision then this could happen!”
Me: Well that can be a good thing because you are prepared for change but it can be a bad thing if you let it overwhelm you and you only think of the bad. I bet if you think back to times when you were really overthinking and worrying, none of the bad things happened right? It is usually the most boring outcome you could imagine right?
(I was framing his worries in a more positive light. Although anxiety is very tough on anyone, anxiety can help a person to be more motivated, prepared, and able to express themselves when the anxiety is addressed in a healthy way)
Him: “Yeah… you are right.”
Then he said something that made a lot of sense to me…something that might help you understand their worry or aid you in talking with your child about worry.
Him: Remember in the Marvel movie Infinity War when Dr. Strange uses his magic to look into the future and all the possible ways they might defeat Thanos and save the world? He sees so many endings but only one where they win.
Him: Well that’s me. I am looking at all the decisions I can make that can end in disaster. Sometimes I can only see one way that it all works out ok. That’s when I worry.
Me: I understand that completely! It’s also kind of like the Spiderman: No Way Home movie where there are alternate timelines and the characters are completely different because of little things that happen in life.
Him: Yeah!! If I do this one thing, then everything gets changed… If I do something different, everything gets changed also! It is the Multi-Verse of Anxiety!
Me: I bet none of your outcomes ever caused you to sacrifice your life like Tony Stark to defeat Thanos and save the world right? (smiling) (Avengers: End Game– The last movie in the MCU series.)
Him: No it’s never that bad.
Me: and it never will be!
Our Kids Are Worried and Anxious – We Have to Help
We have all been stressed these past two-plus years of the pandemic – our children included. In fact, this study from the Journal of American Medicine shows that prior to the pandemic, an estimated 12.9% of youth had depression symptoms and 11.6% had generalized anxiety symptoms. From the pandemic on, that number grew to an estimated 25.2% for depression symptoms and 20.5% for generalized anxiety symptoms. This was only what was reported from doctor visits and mental health screenings. I am sure that number would be much higher if you included all the families that are like us and have been helping our kids overcome worry at home.
I am not qualified to offer medical or psychological help to your child with their worries, but I can offer you encouragement. Each child is different and sometimes a medical professional is needed, but I do believe that education and communication are key.
As parents, we must educate ourselves to understand how their minds are working. My son does not think the same way I do nor see the world the same as I did at his age. I must talk with him to learn how his mind works. You must do the same with your child to give them the right tools but also so they know they are not alone.
When you talk with your child about worry, do not scold them or be overly dismissive of their feelings. Just because it is not a big deal to you, does not mean it is not a HUGE deal to them. Gently and lovingly reassure them. Scolding them will only make them not want to talk to you about it anymore.
Listen to their words and help them to address their fears logically. Is there something you can do to stop one of the fears? Do it. (My son often feels a little sick if he does not eat enough and then gets worried. I make sure he eats a good meal and has snacks with him if possible before he faces something stressful to him.)
Frame it positively. In our conversation above I unknowingly framed his worry as a superpower because he is preparing for any possible outcome. While this can be a negative when it causes too much stress, he will undoubtedly be more prepared because he has thought of so many possibilities! Another way to frame things positively is to help your child realize that because they are sensitive themselves, they are aware when others are struggling and can be an encouragement to them. Helping others through struggles can help their own self-esteem.
Offer them tools to deal with their feelings. Counselors and doctors can help you with this but here are three of the tools we like to use:
1) Naming 5 things we can see, 4 things we can touch, 3 things we can hear, 2 things we can taste, and 1 thing we can smell. This helps ground our minds when we are overwhelmed.
2) Drawing power squares with our fingers. When feeling stressed, we covertly trace a square on our thigh with our fingers. Over and over as our fingers trace the square we are calming ourselves and taking control.
3) Our faith. Years ago I taught my kids to “say your ten fingers” Holding up a finger for each word they recite “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) Now when stressed, I whisper “Say your ten fingers” and they know exactly what I mean.
4) Hugs, high fives, and wrestling together. Physical touch from those we love and trust can help relieve the stress hormones. I have found wrestling on the floor with my son helps him tremendously. Of course, his dad is much better at it but he laughs when I wrestle with him and we usually have a good hug after it. My daughter? She loves it when I just sit right next to her on the couch when she is stressed.
Please don’t wait to talk with your child about worry. Watch one of the Marvel movies together and then have a casual conversation about it afterward. Talk in the car on the way somewhere. Just talk to them! Consult a professional if you feel it is needed. Our kids need as much help now in dealing with and conquering these feelings and we are the first ones in line to give it to them!