Q: My 7-year-old son has started obsessively worrying about everything, from getting sick (which he never is) to earthquakes, bacteria, smoke detector batteries — the list goes on and on.

I would love to reassure him and get him to relax. Is this normal behavior for a 7-year-old who can now read the newspaper? — Via e-mail

A: Many 6- and 7-year-olds are worry-prone.

Younger children are less aware of danger and their own fragility. Four-year-olds have been known to jump off kitchen tables, arms spread, draped with bath-towel capes, shrieking, “Superman!”

By 6 or 7, children have a clearer sense of their limitations and dependence on others. They can ask questions they couldn’t imagine a year or so earlier. They have new tools — like reading — to get information, sometimes too much information, about a world that’s difficult for any of us to comprehend.

Yet they can balance this new vulnerability by recognizing their new skills and potential.

Point out your son’s strengths to him: He can read; ask for and understand information; run fast and learn to run faster. He knows when to call for help and who to call.

Sometimes, though, a parent’s reassurance can backfire. The unintentional message may be that the worry is real. Or a child may feel that the parent isn’t taking his worries seriously.

Instead of saying, “you don’t need to worry about that,” try this approach: “I can see how upset you are when you worry. We can work together to help you feel better.”

Shifting the focus from the worry to the child’s anxious state can help when no amount of reassurance dispels an irrational fear.

Some worries help mobilize us to take action. For example, a child fretting about tomorrow’s school test can be motivated to buckle down and study. But other worries just wear us down and get in the way. If a child tries to study but can’t stop worrying, his concentration suffers.

A 7-year-old can learn to assess his fears and tell which ones are worth abandoning. But if your child can’t stop worrying, and his worries are interfering with his regular activities and his enjoyment of them, you may want to ask your pediatrician for a referral to a child mental health professional.

You use the word “obsessively.” Resources for obsessive behavior include the Child Anxiety Network at childanxiety.net and the National Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation, www.ocfoundation.org.

Among helpful books:

“The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing His Hands: The Experience and Treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” (Signet 1991), by Judith L. Rappoport.

“Helping Your Socially Vulnerable Child: What to Do When Your Child is Shy, Socially Anxious, Withdrawn or Bullied” (New Harbinger 2007), by Andrew R. Eisen and Linda B. Engler.

 

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to:

[email protected]

 

– New York Times Syndicate