My daughter worries about ‘bad’ things she has done

Unhappy Girl Being Gossiped About By School FriendsQUESTION
Our eight-year-old constantly brings up “bad” things she has done in the past which she is worried about or which she feels guilty about. They are relatively minor things, such as a time when she did not share with a friend or when she was naughty in school. Some happened a long time ago – she even refers to years ago – and we are not even certain that some things actually did happen.

We try to reassure her but it does not seem to work and we can’t offer her a solution as all the things happened in the past. We are not sure if she is trying to work out the source of her anxiety or how to resolve it for her. Any suggestions?

For both children and adults a common way anxiety manifests itself is via constant rumination and worry. When caught in a cycle of rumination, a person repeatedly goes over certain events and worries in their mind, usually in a counterproductive way when nothing constructive can be done, such as in your daughter’s case.

Usually these ruminations are accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame and self-judgment with lots of negative self-talk such as “I should have done this”; “What is the matter with me?”; and so on. The ruminating cycle can go round and round pointlessly and take up much of a person’s time.

However, there is a lot you can do as a parent to help your daughter and here are some ideas. Seek help from a mental health professional if you remain concerned.

Encourage her to talk about her worries
While as a parent, it is hard to hear your daughter expressing worries, it is very beneficial that she can confide in you about them. This is much better than her dealing with her worries alone and suffering in silence.

When you listen to her, the key is to be non-judgmental and accepting, encouraging her to share what is on her mind. It is likely that she already feels bad about her worries so if you dismiss them as “silly”, this will make things worse.

Instead, being empathic and normalising what she is feeling helps a lot. For example, you can say, “Lots of people have worries like that . . . they can be hard to deal with.”

Emphasise her strength
When working with anxious children I find it useful to first acknowledge the strength that are inherent in their worries. You might point out to your daughter that you know she is such a sensitive child, “You are always thinking of other’s people’s feelings” . . . “Your problem is you’re are too thoughtful and considerate,” or “Wow, you have a great imagination, I just think you are only imagining the bad things that can happen.”

Solve problems constructively
Spend a little time encouraging her to problem-solve the specific situation she might be worried about. For example, if she says she is worried she did not share some time in the past, you can listen and acknowledge what a kind child she is to want to share and then ask her what she has learned from what happened. How would she like to behave the next time something like this happened?

The goal is to help her move away from unhelpful worry into imagining more constructive action.

Set boundaries around her worries
While you are empathic with her about her worries, you also want to help her set boundaries around them so they don’t dominate her life – or, indeed, negatively affect family life for everyone else.

One of the best tactics in doing this is to set a fixed “worry discussion” time during the day when you agree to listen to all her worries and be there to help her problem solve.

This might mean that for 20 minutes after dinner you agree to sit down and chat with her, but that at other times you won’t entertain worry talk; insist she talks about other things.

In concrete terms, this might mean if she raises a worry at another time, you will say, “Let’s talk about that after dinner,” or if you find her ruminating unhelpful, you can gently interrupt her and suggest she do something else.

Encourage her to challenge her worries
When your daughter is worrying excessively, it can be helpful to encourage her to challenge what is going on. Using questions can be a good way to do this – “Is that really the case?” “Aren’t you being a little hard on yourself?”

Sometimes it is useful to call the ruminating thoughts a name that you can challenge together: “Aren’t you being a bit of a ‘Worry Wort’?” or “Isn’t that just the Worry talking? – you know that is not true.” The goal is to encourage her to separate herself from the worry, so she can decide not to listen to it and not let it influence her.

Teach her to distract herself
It can also be helpful to identify with your daughter strategies she can use to distract herself when ruminating. Simple thing like reading, playing music or going for a walk or jumping on the trampoline might help to interrupt a worry cycle.

You can also use imaginative strategies like talking to worry dolls or putting all her worries on a list and locking them in a box for the night. Use your daughter’s imagination and her interests to build the best distractions for her.

Focus on the positive things in her life
In the long term, building your daughter’s self-esteem and confidence will help. Ensure she is engaged in lots of healthy and fun hobbies that she enjoys and which express her talents. This will bolster her against whatever anxiety and worries she might have.

The goal is to help her get on with all the good things in life, with anxiety being only a peripheral aspect and not centre stage.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, May 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
Find out more about John’s upcoming courses and books.