I believe a negative pattern of worry is established in childhood, based upon life circumstances, experiences, and perceptions. So, in order to find a way out, you need to be able to backtrack along your way in, to where worry started in the first place. When you find your entry point, you’re that much closer to rediscovering the world outside of worry.
A place of worry can come from a lack of security. Your feelings of security are formed in childhood. When you’re a child, you learn to feel secure in your surroundings, your family, yourself, and your abilities. This sense of security provides a stable, strong foundation on which to venture forth into life. When this doesn’t happen, you develop a foundation of insecurity, which substitutes a rickety, weakened foundation, ill-suited for adulthood and its challenges, risks, and dilemmas.
A child with a sense of security looks out across the gulf to adulthood and sees a broadly supported expanse with plenty of room to move and solid railings. There’s no need to focus on the abyss below, because there is no fear of failing. Instead, the child has a wide-open view of the wonders that await. A child with a sense of insecurity looks out across the gulf to adulthood and sees a gap-filled, narrow track hemmed in on all sides by frayed, untrustworthy ropes.
What starts out in childhood translates into adulthood. There are a variety of situation and conditions that lead to this kind of insecurity growing up.
- Death of a parent. A child is utterly dependent upon the care and protection of a parent. When a parent dies, that shield is ripped from the child. Even within a family with a surviving parent or other supportive adults, children experience psychological shock when a parent dies. A child learns that the worst can happen.
- Abandonment by a parent. When a parent basically discards a child through abandonment, damage occurs. In a death, a child learns all is not right with the world. In abandonment, a child assumes all is not right with him or her. A child learns how much one person can hurt another.
- Rejection by a parent. This is different from abandonment and is when a parent intentionally chooses to reject a child, whether or not there is a physical leaving. A child learns that no matter what, they just aren’t good enough.
- Divorce. Overwhelmingly, divorce not only sunders the relationship of the spouses, but also rips apart the world of the children. A child learns it is possible for someone you love to stop loving you.
- Frequent moves. This is a transient society, so moving from place to place is just a part of what our culture. Often, parents view a move as a positive change, due to a new hours or new job. Children, however, have different priorities, and the one thing they cherish, such as a friend, a teacher, a school, an activity, or even a pet can be sacrificed in the decision to relocate. A child learns favorite things can be taken away by those who love them.
- Learning disabilities. Imagine living a life where each new experience was a challenge to identify, cope, sort, assimilate, and learn from. Imagine new situations as a frustrating confrontation, highlighting your inabilities. A child learns to become resigned to failure.
- Difficulties in school. A child who is unpopular, bullied, unsuccessful, or simply unnoticed learns to distrust what could happen tomorrow. A child learns what it feels like on the outside.
- Excessive criticism or negativity by a parent or significant adult. Adults are supposed to be a child’s biggest teacher and cheerleader. Sadly, too often what they teach isn’t very cheery. The child then lives with a critical, negative adult who specialized in blame. A child learns they are the problem.
- Family alcoholism or drug abuse. When alcohol or drug abuse is present in the home, it becomes a home of calm and crisis. A child learns to survive within the chaos of crisis. A calm sky only means a storm is coming. A child learns up is down and down is up.
- Significant legal issues surrounding family members. Domestic violence, evictions, and short-term incarcerations are all traumatic events because they strip away the stability of family. A child learns a home in not a refuge.
- A fearful or insecure parent or significant adult. Some parents communicate hostility and negativity that damage the self-esteem of their children. A child learns the world is a scary place not to be trusted.
- Chronic medical conditions. Imagine the concern of a child who never knows if a parent is going to have some sort of medical issue, from diabetic shock to an epileptic episode. A child learns how quickly things can change.
- Perfectionism in the family. This is one of the most pervasive ways a child is taught to worry. No one can be perfect all the time, so every task, every expectation has a built-in guarantee of failure. A child learns it’s never good enough.
- Over-involved parenting. When a child is smothered by a parent, he or she is not allowed to experience the world outside of the parental cocoon. Negative consequences are immediately treated as crises and whisked away by the parent. A coddles child is weakened and unprepared for the realities of a life detached from a parent. A child learns the thoughts of others are more important than their own.
- Emotional abuse. If a child is told over and over that they are not good enough, they will believe it and be fearful of venturing out much as an adult. A child learns the lesson of inadequacy.
- Physical abuse, including sexual abuse. The devastation of physical and sexual abuse is so vast that it permeates all aspects of a child’s life. This includes the concept of secrecy and holding on to family truths in secret. Bad things, then, are not dealt with out in the open; they are hidden away behind closed doors. A child learns to wrap their pain in shame and hide it away.
- Trauma. While all abuse is traumatic, there are traumatic events that do not stem from abuse, such as catastrophic accidents. A child’s world simply does not contain the possibility for such devastation — until, of course, it happens. Then, all bets are off, and a child may become confused about what is a legitimate concern and what is an improbability. The worry dial has been resent, as it were, by the trauma. A child learns to fear it could happen again.
Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 36 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.