My nine-year-old daughter is extremely anxious. Despite me and her dad talking to her and reassuring her, she still seems to be very worried. Her main issue is that her dad and I will split up and remarry, despite being happily married to each other. We try not to argue in front of our three children, and have spoken to her about it , yet she still talks about it daily. She is the eldest child, andthe others do not have any issue . She is constantly watching us talking to members of the opposite sex.
ANSWER: Even if it is unlikely to happen, many children your daughter’s age worry that their parents might split up. They might meet other children for whom this has happened or come across stories about parental separation in books and newspapers or on TV, and this can spark off a worry in their mind.
At the age of nine, children are growing up and beginning to understand the stresses and strains in the adult world and how adult problems could affect them. For most children, a little bit of reassurance and support from their parents can help them move on from this fear.
However, for many children like your daughter who have a tendency to be anxious, this fear can become fixed and even obsessive, and not reduced by their parents’ constant reassurance. In these situations, as well as being patient and supportive, you might also need to set some rules about how these worries are discussed.
Set a specific “worry time” with your daughter
While it is important to listen to and empathise with your daughter about her fears, it is important not to talk about them all the time. It can be useful to set aside a daily “worry time” with your daughter when you will listen to whatever is on her mind, and help her think the issues through. However, at other times you will not talk about her worries and, instead, will move on to something else.
This means that if she says she is worried about you separating at another inopportune time, you simply say, “Let’s talk about that later during our special time,” and then focus on other positive things that are going on in the day.
This “worry time” should be limited to about 20 minutes and ideally followed by a relaxing fun activity. For example, it could be part of the bedtime routine and be followed by reading a nice story together.
For anxious children, the goal of “worry time” is to help them learn to put a boundary around their worries and not let them dominate, as well as to teach them useful problem-solving skills. Over time it can be useful to rename “worry time” more positively as “problem-solving” or “chatting time”.
Encourage your daughter to talk in a little more detail about her fears
When you do listen, encourage her to share a little more about the basis of her fears. Rather than jumping immediately to reassure her, gently ask her questions such as “What makes you say that?” or “Where did you get that idea?” You want to understand the specific thoughts behind her fears.
For example, she might have heard of someone in class whose parents have separated or she might see you and her father arguing and become anxious about this. Or, as in your situation, she might worry that if her parents become friends with other people, this means you might split up.
Once you get her to express these fears, you can challenge them more specifically. For example, you could say, “It is normal for parents to have disagreements – or to be friends with other people – and that does not mean that anything is wrong.”
The key is to be very patient as you listen to her and to encourage her to think things through and to challenge her own thoughts for herself. A good way to do this is to ask her questions such as, “Think about that, now, do you really think that is true?”
You can also ask questions to help her focus on positive things such as:
“What do you see that tells you Mum and Dad love each other?”
“What could Mum and Dad do to help you feel secure?”
“How could we show you that we really love you?”
Challenge your daughter’s over-responsibility
It is also important to challenge your daughter’s feeling of over-responsibility for her parents’ relationship. Remind her it is up to Mum and Dad to look after each other and that it is not her concern. Encourage her to focus on other “nine-year-old’ concerns” when you are all out together socially, playing with other children, and so on.
As well as being reassuring in your words, show your daughter your reassurance in deeds. For example, if you do have a minor disagreement with your partner in front of her, show her how you can resolve this positively, and then repair any upset and stay connected.
Build your child’s confidence
It is also important to build your daughter’s confidence and encourage her to get on with life and not let her worries dominate. Ensuring she is involved in school and extracurricular activities that she enjoys and has a talent for, and where she meets friends, will all build her confidence and reduce her anxiety overall.
In addition, there are lots of other strategies that you can teach your daughter to tackle her anxiety, such as learning relaxation and positive visualisation that will help her.
Check out some of the articles on anxiety on this website. Also, if your daughter’s anxiety persists, do seek help from a child mental health professional.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, 2015. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.