The Worry Cycle

Around five years ago, I was introduced to Lynn Lyons by a colleague. Lynn was the featured speaker at a meeting for a professional organization of learning specialists, and I had a transformative and uncomfortable experience while I was in the audience.  

My background is in developmental psychology and special needs. I have training in cognitive behavioral therapy. I’m an educator and a parent and an advocate for children. It takes a lot to shake me and after meeting Lynn I was, in the words of my students, shook. She started talking about things that parents and teachers do in an attempt to support children with anxiety that can actually reinforce the anxious thoughts and make them worse. I sank lower and lower in my seat as I was made aware of the ways I was reinforcing avoidant behaviors in my own child… and in myself.

Anxiety is the #1 mental health problem in the United States and the most frequent reason parents bring children to a mental health provider. A little worry now and then can be helpful: it helps us attend to our surroundings and can help to provide a rush of energy or focus to meet an important deadline. Our bodies employ a cascade of responses to a threat that enable us to flee from danger.   

As children grow, they build trust when they have stable, loving caregivers. Some amount of fear and frustration are a natural part of growth. When we, as parents, attempt to eliminate reasons for children to be fearful, we can unintentionally strengthen anxiety. Lyons says, “As we focus on the importance of stepping into new territories, your job is to learn the difference between the supports that help and those that hinder.”

Lyons teaches parents and educators that anxiety demands two things: certainty and comfort.   The anxious brain says “something’s going to happen, and you can’t handle it.” If we tell ourselves there is a threat, our mind and body sound the alarm. Anxiety becomes a problem when it causes us to avoid situations with uncertain outcomes.  

Lyons recommends that parents teach children to “externalize” worry. For many of us, our worry shows up on a predictable schedule but its voice can be loud and convincing. Instead of slipping into the “content trap” (I know you’re worried about going to this sleepover but we have talked about the guest list and the schedule for the night and you’ll have your phone and you can text me any time and I’ll come and get you if it feels like too much), parents can cue externalization by saying “that sounds like worry talking, what would you like to say to your worry?” Reframing worry as an unwanted visitor who can me muted or shown the door is a powerful way to teach children that they have the ability to tolerate and navigate a stressful situation.  

The content of worry is ever changing. When we focus on the content, it’s easy to think we are providing comfort and certainty, when we may be reinforcing worry. We can’t create a world without tests or fire drills or spiders, but we can talk back to worry. We can teach children to differentiate between our worry voice (I should slow down because it’s icy here) and worry noise (your friend’s going to be mad at you and you can’t handle it). We can remind her that worry usually shows up on days when she has spelling quizzes so she shouldn’t be surprised. We can remind him of the times when he felt scared or uncomfortable but he was okay.  

Cueing externalization and avoiding the content trap are just two of the many tools Lyons and her co-author, Reid Wilson, recommend for stopping the worry cycle in their book Anxious Kids Anxious Parents. We will examine more of these at our second Parents Book Club, this Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. Please join Molly Cooper, our school counselor, Julie Schlossinger, our Lower School Head, and me for this event. Parents need not have finished the book to attend.  

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