There is often confusion between what I am going to call lower-case anxiety and upper-case Anxiety. Or, worry (lower case) and Worry (upper case).
My newest book (Something Bad Happened) helps children who might be worrying (lower case) about major world events. The book calmly and supportively walks children through learning about bad things happening in the world, helping them maintain feelings of safety and strength.
It is the right book for the 93% of children out there who do not suffer from upper-case Anxiety. Children who need help processing their feelings and (lower case) fears. These are the children who hear about, for example, a mass shooting in a movie theater in some other state, and then they get scared about going to their local theater, in case there is a shooting there.
Children with (lower case) anxiety can be reassured. They benefit from their parents talking to them (with my book, or on their own) about the various protections that are in place, and how very unusual shootings like that are. These children will agree – perhaps with trepidation – to go to the local theater when a movie of enough interest is playing. And then they’ll go again, perhaps more comfortably. And again. And soon, they are going to the theater without worrying at all.
But there is a subset of children for whom it doesn’t go that way.
The CDC estimates that 7.1% of 3-17 year olds meet criteria for a specific Anxiety Disorder. That’s Worry with an upper-case W. These children might feel nervous about going to the local theater after hearing about a mass shooting, and they’ll refuse to go, regardless of what is playing, or how far after the shooting it is. They’ll also have trouble going to sports arenas, concert halls, anyplace, really, where large groups of people gather. They’ll start to feel nervous about bad things happening to themselves or their parents when they are apart, so they’ll not want to be apart, or they’ll start checking on their parents many times a day, to reassure themselves that everyone they love is safe. For this subset of children (upper case) Worry has taken over.
The same event can trigger worry (lower case) or Worry (upper case).
This is not to say that lower-case worry doesn’t matter. It does. Children who are feeling it need help managing it, including help sorting out whether the worry is justified (the danger is real), and whether changes in behavior (like going to the theater, or not) are necessary.
Children with lower-case worry typically get past it relatively quickly. They pick up environmental cues that tell them they are safe, and benefit from explanations, reassurances, and – where applicable – problem-solving.
Upper-case Worry is different. It is not amenable to logic, or explanations, or problem-solving, or reassurance. It might quiet down briefly (following reassurance, for example) but moments later, it springs back to life.
Upper-case Worry is persistent. It grows over time. It leads to fears and changes in behavior far out of proportion to actual danger.
The techniques used to respond to and treat upper-case Worry are different from the strategies helpful with lower-case anxiety.
I have spent the bulk of my career trying to understand this distinction myself, and to explain it to others – so much as I’d like to tell you the Three Simple Steps for Dealing with Upper-case versus Lower-case Worry, I can’t really do that.
I will say that it always makes sense to start with empathy. And there is always a need to help children develop effective coping strategies. Whether they are struggling with upper-case Anxiety or lower-case worry, children need us to hear them, and to help them. It’s just that the form of help is different.
Children dealing with upper-case Worry need help learning to challenge their Worry, and unhook from it, and not live their lives trying to placate it. If you read Outsmarting Worry, that will make sense to you.
Much of how to understand and respond to upper-case Worry is also articulated in my TEDx talk and the various podcasts available for free here on my website.