Ned Hallowell, MD on Worrying and Connectedness

by Dr. Gail Larsen Peterkin

Last night I attended a talk about worry in children presented by Dr. Edward Hollowell. He is probably best known for "Driven to Distraction," his book about ADD, and "When You Worry about the Child You Love," about
emotional and learning problems in children. He also has a book out called "Worry: Controlling It & Using It Wisely;" his latest is "Connect: 12 Vital Ties That Open Your Heart, Lengthen Your Life, and Deepen Your Soul." He is particularly concerned about the impact "disconnection" is having on our children, essentially depriving them of
a childhood, forcing them to grow up too quickly, and putting them under undue stress to perform and succeed in a very limited arena. Namely, school. He started his presentation by pointing out many successful people who were indifferent students, yet became highly successful adults. He said that grades in elementary school and high school have absolutely nothing to do with happiness or success in adult life. He also said that kids need more play time, to just be kids doing what they want to do. He also said, as a Harvard grad, that he knows many miserable, unhappy people who got into Harvard. And, conversely, many happy, content people who didn't make the grade. (He also said it was nice to be back in New Orleans. He graduated from Tulane Medical School before returning to the Boston area.)

I was especially interested in hearing what he had to say about worry and anxiety in children, particularly because Lewis is such a "worry worry." I'll try to outline some of his cogent points about worry, in no particular order!

Worry often has a genetic basis, has something to do with serotonin. So parents shouldn't beat themselves up if they have a worrier. It's not our fault, and we haven't done anything wrong! It also means it is treatable.

The anxiety disorders are really just fancy names for worrying too much. They are generally diagnosed as anxiety disorders when "fear of the fear" takes over.

A little bit of worry is good for you and can enhance your performance. Too much worry is toxic. If you're worried about a test and it makes you study harder, that's good. But if you're so worried that you're paralyzed every time you look at the book, that's toxic worry.

There are techniques that can be used to bring worry down from toxic levels. Parents can help by offering "reality checks." "What's the worst thing that can happen if you flunk the test, or don't make the team? Will you be a dweeb or wimp for life?" Probably not!

Never worry alone. Share it! Connecting with others reduces worry. He also deplored the lack of communication in American families and said that studies have shown a drastic decline in the number of words spoken in the average American home per day, even over the last ten years. Talk to your kids, and make time for your kids. Read to them, listen to them talk.

Worry occurs in the mind and in the gut. It's based on necessary physical, survival reactions, only misplaced or misused.

Worry is a disorder of the imagination. A worrier imagines and foresees every potential problem. Likewise, you can also imagine or foresee the worry dissipating or a solution to your problem. It isn't real.

Worry is a feeling of vulnerability, not necessarily real vulnerability, coupled with a feeling of lack of power or control, again not necessarily the real thing. You can reduce worry by reducing the feeling of vulnerability, or by increasing the feeling of power and control. For example, if you're worried about making the soccer team, make sure to go out and practice. That will increase the feeling of control over your own fate.

Physical things can help reduce worry. Exercise. Deep breathing.

Highly intelligent people often worry the most.

There is no such thing as smart/stupid. All brains are different and like different things. Look for and accentuate the strengths. (He wrote a children's story/poem about this for his kids! It's cute! "The Brain in the Rain," or something like that!) This idea has been upheld neurologically and is rooted in good research, like Gardner's research on multiple intelligences.

Kids have trouble with perspective. They are exposed to so much information, including a lot of negative, scary information from the media, but they don't have the perspective of a lifetime to put it into context. He gave an example of a very affluent private school he studied in a very posh suburb of Boston. Very low crime rate, and the children were really very safe in their community. Yet the number one fear among second and fourth graders was the fear of robbers invading their home and harming their family. Does this happen? Yes, sometimes. Does it
happen in their community? No, not really. It was something they'd picked up from watching the news, from other neighborhoods that aren't so safe.

Parents can project their own worries onto their children. He gave a personal example of his son. When he was in kindergarten, the boy came home and announced, "Nobody likes me." Dr. Hallowell said he and his wife were simply beside themselves with worry, tossing and turning all night, crying, etc., etc. By the next morning, the boy had forgotten all about the problem, and, when Dr. Hallowell mentioned it to the teacher, she laughed! Yes, the remark probably was rooted in a real incident, but the kid wasn't really worried about it. Instead, they projected their own worries, based on their own childhoods as kinda unpopular kids, onto their son.

If you are concerned about your child, talk to his or her teacher first. They are a wonderful, untapped resource. They see a huge number of kids over the years and have a pretty good idea of who fits within the "normal" range. They are generally far more helpful than pediatricians, who only see children for a very brief time. Although pediatricians, too, have their place!

If you or your child suffers from excessive worry, and it interferes  with daily life, it can be treated. Short term cognitive-behavioral therapy seems to work well on worry, and the new medications (Prozac and the other new anti-anxiety meds) work well and are safe. He said it's nothing to be ashamed of and no stigma should be attached to what is, in fact, a biological problem. He likened it to the improved vision that results from wearing glasses.

He also said not to disappear from your children's lives, especially as they become nasty teenagers. They may tell you to go away, and they mean it at the time, but they also don't really want parents to go away. They need the connection! But many parents take it at face value and assume their kids want to go it on their own. NOT! The very fact of showing up to these kind of programs shows that we won't do this, that we are committed parents who are concerned and interested in our children.

It also helps to talk to other parents. Make connections! And I guess that's what we've done here, on the NLD list.

I bought both the "Worry" and "Connect" books, although John didn't want to stay around long enough to have them autographed. Probably a wise idea, as my Mom, a reluctant babysitter at best, was staying with the boys for the evening. Dr. Hallowell did give us his e-mail address and says he likes to answer e-mail from people. I plan on writing him for his insights into NLD and anxiety. I was a little disappointed he didn't mention NLD, and I didn't see it specifically mentioned in the index of the "Worry" book.

One audience member did ask him for hints on overcoming ADD, as he also has ADD. He said it's very individual, and what works for one child/adult may not necessarily work for your child/adult. He said to find a good person to evaluate and get to know your child, and to follow their recommendations. He said his books all give numerous different examples of strategies that have worked for different people. But nothing works for everyone, so you pretty much have to discover what works for yourself, with professional advice and the help of teachers, etc.

Anyway, sorry for the long post, and I hope some of you find it informative and/or helpful. If I think of any more pearls of wisdom, I'll pass them along! Also, if you can think of anything I should include in my e-mail on NLD to Dr. Hallowell, please let me know!

P.S. Dr. Hallowell said he wanted to study worry because he, too, is a worrier!

Visit his website: