Worry can permeate every aspect of a child’s life and negatively impact their happiness. It doesn’t have to be this way. In this article I outline several ways of helping your child cope with worry.
I am Lucy Russell, clinical director of Everlief Child Psychology, one of the largest child psychology clinics in the UK. Around 80% of children who come to us for therapeutic support are suffering with anxiety. Worry is involved in many cases.
Thoughts Can Trigger Strong Emotions Such as Worry… If We Let Them
Worries are thoughts. Sometimes they are very clear, easy to describe thoughts, and other times they are a vague niggle, perhaps a jumble of multiple worries rolling around in your child’s mind, like a snowball gathering momentum as it rolls down a hill.
Example of a single worry:
“I might get told off at school.”
Example of a vague or snowballing worry:
“The kids in the playground are scary and something might happen in the playground, or people might laugh at me in the classroom if I get something wrong, and people won’t want to be friends with me and I’ll be alone and…” (And so on.)
The most important thing you can teach your child about worries is that they are not facts.
Many children believe their worries.
Instead, they should be taught that worries are mental events created by the brain. The brain loves to come up with worse-case scenarios, because the brain is designed for survival rather than happiness.
Detach From Thoughts
Thoughts trigger emotions , even if they are not true or the worry is not likely to happen.
Teach your child to spend time observing their thoughts – or writing them down – like an interested bystander watching clouds passing.
The idea that your child is an observer of what’s going on inside their brain is much more helpful than letting thoughts “happen” to them, allowing the thought to trigger worried feelings.
Of course, we all allow thoughts to trigger worry sometimes. As I have already mentioned, our brains evolved to keep us alive rather than to make us happy.
So, focusing on possible dangers was a great survival tactic.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work for us in our modern lives. Children can become so caught up in their minds that they lose out on living.
Teach them to identify the thought, and then detach from it. Try the strategies below.
Challenge the Thought
As thoughts have such a massive impact on our mood, we really should question them, and we need to teach our children to do it too. Start with just one thought at a time. Go through the series of questions below to check how true or likely the thought or belief is. Then your child will be in a much better position to judge whether they should allow the thought or belief to influence their day, their mood, or their life.
Questions to ask:
- Are you confusing a thought with a fact? (Examples: “I’m not popular”, “the world is against me”.) Thoughts are not true just because they have appeared in your mind.
- Would your thought be accepted as correct by other people? What evidence do you have to back it up and to contradict it?
- Are you doing “black and white thinking”“? For example, people are not usually all good or all bad. They are a mixture of the two. Are you applying this kind of black-and-white thinking to yourself?
- What alternative viewpoints are there? Is your view of things the only possible view?
- Are you catastrophising? It means always assuming the worst. It means assuming that a terrible thing is going to happen because one small bad thing happened, e.g. “I missed a step in the ballet routine so I will fail my exam.”
Most children will be new to this technique. Once you do this a few times, you’ll see that your child starts to pick up the technique and eventually it will become automatic.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Worries Come and Go Like Clouds
All worries pass. If your child has a worry, help them to be like an observer watching that worry, imagining it as a cloud.
Rather than being controlled by thoughts and feelings, we can learn to be interested observers, watching them in a detached way, knowing that, just like clouds, they will soon pass.
There is blue sky and sunshine behind the clouds. Your child will not always feel this way.
All worries, big and small, will pass.
It’s very helpful to create a visual by drawing thoughts and feelings clouds.
It helps your child to step back and become an observer more easily. Eventually they will learn that they can choose whether to engage with the cloud that is directly above, or just watch it as it slows passes by.
Imagine a Worry as a Balloon
Ask your child to choose one of their worries.
On an A4 piece of paper ask them to draw their worry as a balloon – the larger the balloon, the larger the worry.
Then start to talk through things that could make the worry smaller, even if only a tiny bit. Questions you could ask include:
- How would you advise a friend who had this same worry?
- How could we deal with the worry together?
- Who can support you with the worry?
- How likely is it that the worry will come true, and is it taking up more space in your mind than it really should?
- Think of a similar worry you had in the past. How did you deal with it that time? What happened? Did the worry come true?
Make some notes, and then choose 3-5 of the most powerful statements, that will help “shrink” the worry.
Draw this number of hands around the balloon, pushing on it, releasing the air.
Then your child should write out the statements, one in each of the hands.
Next, take stock of everything you have done, and ask your child how much the worry has shrunk. Ask them to draw a new balloon, representing the worry now that some air (power) has been released from it. Repeat with other worries as and when they come up.
Eventually your child will start to shrink worries alone.
Helping Your Child Cope With Worry: Further Learning
There are many other ways your child can learn to manage their thoughts through cognitive behavioural techniques like those described above.
You’ll find more information in the book written by me and five colleagues, Brighter Futures.
If you are looking for a workbook for your child, I recommend Think Good, Feel Good by Paul Stallard.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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