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Anxiety is hard enough to cope with when you have the life experience to distinguish real threats from imaginary ones. We adults may know that the odds of an alien invasion are super slim, but in your child’s mind, it may feel perfectly plausible.

If your child is prone to anxious thoughts, you can help them deal by sorting worries according to how realistic they are. Child psychologist Dr. Emily W. King calls them “real” worries and “trick” worries. A real worry is something that could possibly happen, like getting a bad test score or being injured playing sports. Trick worries are things that aren’t real threats, like monsters in the closet or zombie attacks.

“As adults we recognize ‘real worries’ as things that are probable to happen and ‘trick worries’ as irrational fears, either because they are not possible or not likely to happen. It’s helpful to make this distinction for kids, too,” King said.

Real worries vs. trick worries

To help kids start to tell the difference, lay some brain science on them.

“We can teach kids about the thinking part of their brain, the upper cortex, to decide if a worry is trick or real, to accurately assess the risk they are in and decide what to do next,” King said.

The amygdala, King said, is in charge of feelings but can overreact based on stories you’ve heard, pictures and videos you’ve seen, or past scary experiences.

“The hard part is that we cannot always access our rational thinking if our amygdala is in a high state of alert,” she said. “That’s where safe, connected relationships come in to help emotionally regulate us.”

Kids may worry about their safety or fear something bad happening at any time, especially in unfamiliar situations, when they are tired, or when they see or hear about something dangerous. Anxiety may come up at bedtime, before tests and new experiences, or when children are separated from their caregivers. Which worries are real and which are tricks?

“Examples for kids might be explaining that if it begins to thunder and lightning when they are playing outside, they are truly worried about lightning, so they run inside. That’s a real danger,” King said. “A trick worry would be thinking there are monsters in your closet or worrying that a robber will come into your house every night. Yes, robbers are real, but the likelihood of this happening often does not match the level of worry a child feels.”

How to help kids manage their worries

Here are a few ways to help kids feel safe and connected:

  • Remind them of ways we keep them and ourselves safe. For example, if they are worried about car accidents, remind them how traffic laws, seatbelts, and airbags keep us safe.
  • Come up with a safety plan for scenarios that scare them, like storms, fire, or swimming.
  • For kids who are worried about mistakes or failure, remind them making mistakes is normal and is actually something we can learn from.
  • If bedtime and darkness are triggers for worry, make the dark fun by playing with flashlights or making shadow puppets. You don’t have to have fun in the dark right before bed for your kid to make the connection between darkness and fun times with you.

“Parents can lean into their relationship with their child to remind them of all the ways they are already safe when experiencing a trick worry that is possible but not likely,” King said.

Try these steps for helping kids deal with real and trick worries:

  1. Regulate. Try body regulation through breathing exercises, stretching, or movement. The most helpful movement will depend on what makes your child feel better, so try a few.
  2. Educate. Explain the difference between real and trick worries, what things are likely and unlikely to happen, how their brains interpret worries when they are emotional, tired, or under pressure.
  3. List. Some kids may want to write out a list of their real and trick worries to distinguish them and feel a sense of power over them. While some kids might feel better listing their worries in the moment, it might cause others to feel more anxious. “Know your kids and when they are in the best headspace—rested and focused—to process these ideas,” King said.
  4. Normalize. “Help children understand their brain is getting used to new situations all the time, and it’s normal to feel unsure at first,” King said. “Unsure doesn’t always mean danger.”
  5. Revisit. After your child has been through a “brave” experience, check in with them to see if their anxiety has decreased. “If so, this will give them confidence for the next time they are brave,” King said. “If not, monitor this and possibly consult with a mental health professional.”

Practicing these steps will help you and your child develop a shorthand for evaluating their worries when they pop up. Is it imaginary? That’s a trick worry. Is it extremely unlikely? Also a trick worry. Is it possible? That’s a real worry, but here’s how you are protected from it, and this is how you can regulate your feelings for now.

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