Should I Worry About Worrying?

Q: Over the past half year, our 11-year-old daughter has been continually over-worrying about small daily occurrences. My husband and I try to reassure her, telling her her fears are in vain and that the likelihood of her worst-case scenarios happening is exceedingly small. I think she has been hearing stories about her friends’ illnesses and other situations that frighten her. It’s as if she feels that no one is immune to problematic circumstances (which is unfortunately true).

My husband tells me that I am making a mountain out of a molehill and that our daughter’s reactions are in the realm of normal. She still plays and laughs, and doesn’t seem “traumatized” to him.

I try to make sure that she recites the complete Krias Shema every night as a guard against fears and as a way to help build her bitachon — which everyone can use more of.

How can we know, though, if her behavior is a normal facet of her development or if, in fact, it is a reflection of real trauma?

A: It can be difficult to gauge the extent of a child’s psychological pain — be it anxiety or depression — and how it affects her life. Usually children’s psychological sensitivities are reflected in the difficulty they have in coping day-to-day. As your husband has commented, your child is acting normally.

Children are generally adaptable enough to develop and learn ways to appropriately problem-solve life’s daily occurrences. If a mother or father becomes a “helicopter parent” and over-worries, the child erroneously learns from the parent that being overly concerned about life’s every detail will magically shield them from future misfortunes. Thus, being overly empathetic about a child’s daily challenges can help create a child who cries after every fall and often blames the “other” for each mishap.

This is perhaps a major challenge in being a parent — knowing how to respond to a child’s daily concerns with care and concern, and yet show belief in the child’s ability to work out life’s daily stressful circumstances.

There are personality types who have learned from a young age that complaining is a way for them to be listened to (and others easily join them), and are not in a state of deep depression. On the other hand, there are those who seem quite content with their lives, but when analyzed more carefully, layers of great sadness become apparent.

One way to determine the degree of your daughter’s worry is to give her an example of something that worries you. You can speak about this to your daughter and expound upon the issue, describing the ways you try handling the situation. You can ask her how she thinks one might respond to such a challenge.

Then you can begin to generalize on the idea of worries leading to anxiety, and get her thoughts about this. By being open-ended (i.e. avoiding questions that lead to yes-or-no answers), you can elicit responses from your daughter to help you ascertain the extent of her fears.

Expressing ways of how you and your husband are able to cope with areas in your lives that you are worried about (areas you feel comfortable disclosing, of course) can help open up discussions with your daughter. This adds a sense of hope that fears of the future can possess a definite beginning and end.

The image of a wave in the ocean is often a helpful vision to keep in mind when an overwhelming fear seems to be enveloping one’s daily life. Just as a wave ascends, it also descends, though initially it seems it will knock us down.

In relation to trauma, it has been said that there are two types: trauma with a lower-case “t” and Trauma with an upper-case “T.” When a seemingly normative annoyance happens consistently (such as a sibling calling you “stupid” daily), it can have the psychological effect of a major trauma. Our sub-conscious mind doesn’t differentiate the manner in which we absorb and integrate pain, and many lower-case “t”s can become upper-case “T”s. In these cases, a parent’s intervention to help problem-solve recurring negative familial communication patterns is always most helpful to minimize unnecessary pain.

As in all situations, if you continue to feel that your daughter’s fears are affecting her life in too much of a global manner, professional help is greatly recommended. No parent is given the ability to know all the accurate answers.