Dear Alice, I am struggling with a problem that greatly concerns me. Our 12-year-old daughter is a worrier.
I am struggling with a problem that greatly concerns me. Our 12-year-old daughter is a worrier. She has trouble sleeping, bites her nails, and she tells me about the emotional discomfort she feels from her worries. Unfortunately, I am a worrier, too, which often makes my responses unhelpful. My mother was one as well, and for years I thought this was a way to show love. I am beginning to doubt this notion. Unlike us, my husband tries to ignore the distress that our daughter is feeling, which is more his style. I find that I am adding to her unease by asking her too many questions about her friends and how they treat her, her grades, and anything else she has mentioned that she worries about.
I know I need help with this. Can you offer any suggestions that would help me help my daughter?
— Concerned Parent
Dear Concerned Parent,
You are right to want to change your reactions to your daughter’s worry. The way that you react to her is most likely adding to her distress. Before you help her, you need to help yourself. The definition of worry is “to torment oneself.” You need to recognize that worry has no value; in fact, it can have a powerful negative impact on your ability to successfully navigate through the normal stresses of life.
If there is something that concerns you, you need to determine if you can do anything to change it. The well-known “Serenity Prayer” by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is a helpful way to address this. It states: “ God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Constantly reviewing and agitating over things that bother us doesn’t help solve them, but rather creates more anxiety and uses more energy than solving the problem. Once you are clear about this, you will be in a better emotional place and will be better able to help your daughter deal with her issues. Tell her that you, too, have been a worrier as was your mother, and that you have learned to recognize that this is an unhelpful behavior. She is likely to appreciate your honesty, and she almost assuredly already knew you were a worrier anyway. She needs to feel your support and sincere understanding of her problem. Hopefully, she will see that you have been able to overcome your worry and can help her deal with hers.
I recommend starting by sharing the Serenity Prayer with your daughter. Once she recognizes that some things can’t be changed, she will begin to learn to let them go. If she can change something, she will begin to feel more powerful, self-confident, and in control.
One example of this is her schoolwork. If she is worrying about her grades, she can ask for extra help or try to arrange a study group. If certain friends are behaving badly toward her, she may be able to join an activity that will enable her to make new friends. Finding solutions is a wonderful life lesson.
Another helpful approach is to encourage your daughter to substitute other thoughts for her worries. Talk with her about what she enjoys doing and emphasize those things that gives her pleasure. She can learn to replace her worries and ruminations with these happier thoughts and activities. If she is athletic, she can do something physical that will temporarily remove her worry and enhance her feeling of well being. For many people, exercise has been shown to improve mood.
If she likes to read, encourage her to find an interesting book that she enjoys and captures her attention. Reading about young people who have overcome difficulties is another way that she can distract herself and keep her focus on good things in her own life rather than on her worries. Such reading, in particular, may enhance her gratitude that she is healthy and not dealing with overwhelming issues.
By thinking of what she is grateful for, she may become more hopeful about her life and replace her troubling thoughts with better ones. Distraction is helpful, and when it is on meaningful things, other than television, for example, she may even feel uplifted. You can recommend her “staying in the moment” instead of bounding into the future with images of the worst-case scenario. Practice this with her, showing her how to eat or even walk mindfully to take her mind off her worries.
Teach her slow breathing techniques (look on the Internet under breathing exercises) to help her relax. Have her ask herself what’s the likelihood that something she fears will happen. She may see that it is very unlikely to happen and be able to let it go. If there is a strong likelihood, she can begin to strategize how to deal with the problem and come up with solutions she had not thought of initially.
Ultimately, doing things for others instead of focusing on oneself may be one of the best methods for overcoming the torment of worry. By being caring and generous, your daughter will learn to channel her energy into a lifelong goal of improving the lives of others. As a result, her life will be greatly enhanced as well.
Best wishes with this.