Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Review: Why Smart Kids Worry

I remember what it was like to be a kid filled with worry and anxiety over the issue of medical visits and upcoming shots. I spent hours obsessing over the inevitable. I also worried about dying in a fire, for some reason. I remember countless nights of pouring out my heart's great fears to my father and having him pray over me to silence the concerns I felt. While prayer is a wonderful, powerful tool for helping a child to cope with anxiety, this book offers additional tools for parents to use if and when their children face anxiety and intense worry.

In Why Smart Kids Worry: And What Parents Can Do to Help, licensed professional counselor Allison Edwards guides parents through the issues of anxiety in children. The first half of the book is devoted to exploring why smart kids tend to worry. Gifted children often have a higher intellectual processing ability, and therefore tease out possibilities to a further extent than other children. While an average kid might realize that some people die, a gifted child can take that thought to the next level and realize that he/she might be one of them. The second part of the book focuses on tools a parent can use to help alleviate or diminish some of those feelings of anxiety. I felt the tools were the most valuable part of the book and therefore, if you have a child experiencing anxiety but lack time to devote to the whole of this book, you could really skim the first section and focus your attention primarily on the tools at the end of the book.

I can appreciate the author's warning that our children are presented with more information than ever before. I lived a fairly shielded life. I don't remember my parents discussing awful things going on in the world. I don't remember watching the news with them or hearing about epidemics or diseases or warfare. Yet, I know that I was a child filled with anxiety. My own life experiences had caused me to fear shots and medical situations and to be aware that children sometimes die of cancer (my childhood friend died of cancer). However, when I think about my own children, it is clear that efforts to shield them will be far more difficult to manage. They simply have access to far more information than I ever did.

For example, I made a point of telling my husband not to mention the Ebola situation to our boys and yet, not a day later, my middle son came to me to ask what Ebola was because he saw it mentioned on a vine he had watched. I know there are some parents who simply don't allow their children to have access to computers without their constant supervision (how do they manage that?), but inevitably the subject is viewed by other kids and brought up on the school playground. So, even if I restricted my son from watching vines, he would probably still come across information which could prompt great anxiety.

I believe, as a parent, my goal is not to shield my child from every possible ill or anxiety, but more to teach them to monitor their own use and manage their own emotional needs. Thus, I was quite interested to note several of the more promising tools suggested in the final portion of the book. These are tools which would not only assist children with anxieties, but also parents who experience anxiety (thus, they are things I will attempt to employ in my own life).

Here are some of the more helpful tools mentioned: "Square-breathing." You encourage the child to visualize the four sides of a square and using this image, then breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and rest for four counts. "Worry time" emphasizes the need to schedule a particular, limited time for focusing on worries. "Changing the channel" simply encourages you to switch gears so the child can move on to something different with the promise of returning to the worry at a more conducive time. "The five question rule" limits the child's obsessing by putting a boundary on how many questions a child can present. The "I Did It List" focuses on encouraging the child to make a list of times when they have accomplished something big, so they can build confidence. Other tools utilize positive reinforcement, role-playing, reverse psychology, providing structure and routine, employing the child's help to solve a similar anxiety in another hypothetical child, and expending physical and emotional energy so there is less available to plow into anxieties.

One of the tools I will use on myself in the future, is the concept of a "brain plate." Kids are encouraged to see their brain as a plate. Imagining a plate in front of them, they are asked to place all the meals for the whole week on their plate and then asked what would happen if they tried to eat all of those meals in one sitting. They obviously can understand that they would get sick and you can then shift gears to explain that, in a similar way, the brain cannot handle all of life's future anxieties in one dose. This encourages an individual to bite off only today's troubles, instead of being overwhelmed with troubles from the future. I loved the George MacDonald quote the author used, "No one ever sank under the burden of the day. It is when tomorrow's burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than one can bear."

If you are troubled by a child who is experiencing inordinate anxieties over possible life scenarios, this book certainly provides a healthy discussion of the topic, along with strategies for approaching this dilemma. No parent wants to watch their child immobilized by fears and anxiety. While providing a listening ear is helpful and offering up prayers encourages their faith, having a few tools at your disposal for approaching anxiety can only benefit the parent of an anxious child.

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