What Your Tween Worries About Most

The world can be scary, and preteens know it. Find out how to ease a child's fears.

By Christina Frank

When kids are little, reassuring them about their fears means looking under the bed and in closets and pronouncing them monster-free. As they get older, they become more sophisticated and so do their worries. "Around the end of elementary school, kids' anxieties become more reality-based," says Carrie Spindel, a child and adolescent psychologist at the NYU Child Center's Institute for Anxiety and Mood Disorders. "They are more aware of potential dangers like fires and serious illness and also more sensitive to social and academic stresses."

Here's what a 9-to-13-year-old is likely to be worrying about, and why:

The health of someone they love. Fifty-five percent of kids surveyed for a recent KidsHealth poll said they worry about the health of someone close to them "almost all the time." During the preteen years, many schools address the dangers of smoking, drinking, driving, and unhealthy eating. While these lessons are valuable, it's natural for your child to worry about how such behaviors might affect her parents or friends. It's also likelier that she has actually experienced the illness or death of a loved one, making death less of an abstract notion than it is for younger kids.

Social issues. Tweens are hyper-aware of their social status. Are they fashionable enough, popular enough, too smart, not smart enough? "Kids at this age are physically developing at such different rates," says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. "Some are beginning to date, and for some dating is a long way off. All of these factors fuel anxiety about fitting in, about whether they are normal."

Their grades. Middle school requires kids to be more independent than they were in elementary school, and academics become more challenging. Suddenly, there's an emphasis on the importance of succeeding in school and the idea that grades are starting to "count."

How to Help a Child Cope

When a child is hurting, the temptation is to rush in and reassure him. "Kids want answers, but it's also important to talk things out," Chansky says. Better to sit back and let him share what's on his mind and remind him that his feelings and concerns are natural. Later, you can clear up any misunderstandings.

Distinguish facts from fears. Worries tend to take on a life of their own in a child's mind, so help her to make the distinction between a feeling and a fact. Remind her that simply thinking about someone dying, for example, doesn't make it more likely to happen. If someone she knows is seriously ill, give accurate information that she can understand, without catastrophizing. Often, kids imagine scenarios that are worse than the reality.

Empower them. Spindel calls these years the "age of thinking," and suggests that parents and grandparents  try to give kids a sense of control over their worries by bringing the abstract back to the concrete. If he's worried about something happening to you, ask him to list some ways you try to keep yourself safe and healthy (which has more of an impact than simply telling him yourself).

If he's worried about his grades or friendships, think up some ways he can improve those — say, by spending more time on his homework or inviting a certain person over. "Never lie," Spindel says. "Tell the child honestly that, no, we can't control everything, but let's focus on the things we can."

Create calm. It's scary to see a child worried, and vice versa. Kids are constantly watching adults for cues. If your own anxiety is overwhelming, get help (via a counselor, therapist, or support group) so you can be there for a child or grandchild. Ideally, a child should view his parents and grandparents as calm, confident, and level-headed.

Know when to seek help. Some degree of fear and anxiety is normal, and even necessary, as a protective or motivating force. But how do you know if your child's worrying is excessive? Spindel says red flags include changes in behavior, sleep, or eating patterns; suddenly avoiding school; crying more than usual; and complaining of physical ailments.

This article originally appeared on Scholastic.com



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