Ask An Expert / Anxiety

How can I help a 4-year-old who worries about everything?

Behavioral therapy can be very effective for anxious youngsters

Clark Goldstein, PhD

I have a very anxious 4-year-old. She is scared of lots of things and she worries about everything — death, getting hurt on the way to school, something happening to her brother. She freaks out over simple things. I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, and I really want to help my daughter.

Some children are just more shy, inhibited, and anxious than many of their peers. That’s not necessary a problem for a child. However, if you daughter’s worries are really bothering her, if they’re interfering with her ability to function and enjoy things that are appropriate for her age, it would be prudent to have her evaluated.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be very effective for treating anxiety, though for children at your daughter’s age the therapy tends to be more behavioral than cognitive. The therapist gradually exposes the child, in a safe, controlled setting, to things that trigger her worries, to help her learn to tolerate the anxiety until it diminishes.

To find a good clinician in your area you might consult the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies web site here. There’s an excellent book for parents of anxious children called Helping Your Anxious Child.

In addition, if you are suffering with moderate or severe anxiety, you should consider getting help from a specialized CBT clinician. It can be a challenge to help children when you are struggling with the same issues. Treatment can help you model effective coping strategies for your daughter, as well as give you more emotional resources to help her.