Does your child get overwhelmed by worries and anxiety? A worry box can be a powerful coping tool to help them manage anxious thoughts. This simple yet effective technique stems from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a widely recognised evidence-based approach for managing anxiety in both children and adults.
A worry box gives your child a tangible way of addressing and containing their feelings, ultimately making them feel lighter and more in control.
A worry box is essentially a container where your child can safely store their worries. They write or draw their anxious thoughts on a piece of paper and place them into the box. This physical act helps your child let go of the stress associated with the worry. It helps them focus on the present moment.
In this article I will guide you through the process of creating a worry box with your child, and share how this coping mechanism can significantly reduce anxiety levels. As you explore this powerful tool, your child will learn that learning to manage their your worries effectively leads to increased wellbeing and a healthier state of mind.
What is a Worry Box?
A worry box is a simple yet potent therapeutic tool designed to help children manage their feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. By creating a physical space to store their worries, your child can symbolically let go of their concerns, allowing them to feel lighter and more in control.
Worry Boxes as Part of Your Child’s “Coping Menu”
To make a worry box, all you need is a container (this could be a box, jar, or even a small bag) that can be decorated or personalised in any way your child prefers. They write or draw their worries on pieces of paper and place them inside the worry box. Your child will learn to “externalise” their anxious thoughts and feelings. It also also offers an opportunity for problem-solving, discussion, validation and emotional exploration.
Worry boxes can be an important addition to your child’s “coping menu”, working alongside other techniques such as deep breathing exercises or calming activities. As children develop a range of coping strategies, they become more resilient and better equipped to manage their emotions. I like to work with children to create a visual reminder of each of their favourite coping strategies.You can see an example of a “coping menu poster” below.
It’s important to regularly revisit and review the contents of the Worry Box with your child. This can help them to appreciate how their worries have changed over time and acknowledge the progress they have made in managing their anxieties. Remember, the aim is to empower your child with a sense of control over their worries.
Benefits for Children
For young children under 10, a worry box can be a brilliant introduction to identifying and sharing your worries. But they may need more help than you think. Identifying your worries is an advanced skill, especially if you have multiple worries swirling around in your mind. Sit with your child and try to help them label and makes sense of their big feelings.
If your child finds writing difficult, they can draw their worries instead.
Older children will also benefit from using a worry box to make sense of what’s on their mind, and this will help prevent rumination. There’s something about physically writing or drawing your thoughts that helps is process them in a much more helpful way, than if they stay in our heads.
Having a designated space for your child’s worries allows them to put their emotions and come back to discuss them at a specific time. The worry box acts as a safe space for worries. When the box “holds” your worry, you can stop worrying and focus on something else.
Depending on your child’s age and their relationship with you, they may not want to talk the worries through with you. Although I recommend encouraging them to do this (because a problem shared is a problem halved!), it’s not essential. If your child prefers to reflect on their worries alone, you should still encourage them to pick a specific time each day or week to empty the box and think the worries through.
Children’s Mental Health
The worry box is just one coping strategy of many possible tools your child could choose from. But the principles it represents are crucial:
Naming your worries helps you gain a sense of control over them.
You can learn to manage your mind effectively to minimise stress and anxiety. You do not need to let your worries control or define you.
The symbolic nature of a worry box teaches children that their thoughts are just thoughts, enabling them to understand their emotions and gain control over them.
Knowledge is power. Understanding our worries means we can decide on an appropriate course of action, or simply share it with others and know that we are not alone. This is one of the key principles of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Better understanding of our thoughts and feelings is part of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence and positive mental health are closely linked. Emotional intelligence is a protective factor for depression, anxiety and stress.
Worry Boxes as a Sleep Aid
At my clinic, Everlief, a very high percentage of the children and young people I work with have sleep difficulties. Often the main cause is worry.
Night time is a quiet time when, after a busy day, we are alone with our thoughts. If we don’t have effective management strategies in place, night time worries can quickly snowball into anxiety. If the fight or flight response is triggered by anxious thoughts, the body will become alert rather than sleepy, and sleep won’t come.
One of the first things I tend to put in place with these children is a worry box. Worries can be put into the box at any time, but it’s important that before bed, your child reflects on anything that might be bothering them, and places these thoughts in the worry box. The worry is put aside until the next day.
When it comes to the time for taking the worries out of the box and talking them through or reflecting on them, make sure this is not too close to bedtime. The perfect time is late afternoon/early evening e.g. around 6pm, when your child has had a chance to rest and eat after school.
Creating a Worry Box
Materials Needed For Your Worry Box
To create your own worry box, gather the following materials:
- A shoe box with lid, tissue box or other small cardboard box.
- Little squares or paper or card or post-it notes to write the worries on.
- Craft supplies such as paint, coloured markers, stickers or decorative tape.
- Art supplies like googly eyes and pipe cleaners if your child would like to make the box into a character.
- Glue or strong adhesive.
- Select the container: Choose a tissue box or a small cardboard box as the base for your worry box. Make sure it’s big enough to hold your child’s worries, but not so large that it takes up too much space.
- Decorate the exterior: Your child will use the craft supplies to decorate the exterior of the box in any way they like. They can paint it, draw on it with markers, or even add decorative tape for a unique and personalised touch. Let their creativity shine through in this step.
- Create a worry monster (optional): If you’d like to make the worry box more engaging for your child, consider turning the tissue box opening into the “mouth” of a worry monster. Use your art supplies to create a monster face. Attach googly eyes, triangular pieces of card for teeth, or even a pipe cleaner antenna with a sign reading “FEED ME WORRIES!”
- Prepare the inside: If you’re using a cardboard box rather than a tissue box, cut a small opening or “mouth” in one side of the box so you can slip your worries inside. You can also add a lining made of paper, fabric, or any other soft material to the interior.
- Using your worry box: The next time your child feels worried or anxious, encourage them to write the worry down on a piece of paper and slip it into the worry box’s opening. It can take a couple of weeks to establish this as a habit, so persistence is key.
Now, your child has a personalised worry box that can help them manage their worries and big feelings more effectively. Give it time for this tool to “bed in” as part of their healthy lifestyle and really start making an impact.
Remember to use the worry box as a tool for addressing worries, rather than as a permanent storage place for them. Occasionally review and discuss the contents of the box to, and if a worry is no longer relevant for your child, remove it from the box.
Establishing Worry Time
Pick a Specific Time
Incorporating worry time into your child’s routine begins by establishing a specific time when you can both focus on their worries. Allocate a dedicated period, e.g. 6pm for 15 minutes, which provides you both with the mental space you need to process the thoughts and feelings. Setting a timer during your worry time may help keep you both focused. The objective is “light touch”. You don’t want to spend hours dwelling on a worry or problem-solving it.
Reviewing Worries With Your Child
To make worry time an effective coping strategy, you need to turn it into a daily routine for your child.
Take out each worry from the box, read it, and spend some time reflecting on it together Allow your child to feel, analyze, and process the worry. Try to help them “detach” from the worry. For example, how might they help a friend with this same concern?
Once you’ve addressed each worry together, decide whether to keep the worry for future reflection or discard it. Can they let go of it? If so, great. If not, no problem, you will come back to it again next time!
During the review process, you could help them assess the severity of each worry by using a scale of 1 to 10. One is the least worried and 10 being the most worried.
As a parent, you also need to be a skilled listener. Listen carefully to your child’s worries and don’t dismiss them or belittle them (e.g. “don’t be silly”).
- Pick a consistent time to review worries
- Help them assess the severity using a 1 to 10 scale
- Focus on listening and validating their feelings. If the worry is a solvable one, you can problem solve together.
Regular worry box review sessions will gradually teach your child to manage unhelpful thoughts significantly more effectively. Keep in mind that everyone’s worries are different, and it’s essential to offer support and understanding while working through the process. Remember, the goal is not to eliminate all worries but to learn how to navigate them, lessen their impact, and foster a healthier mindset in facing challenges.
Problem-Solving With The Worry Box
Not all worries are solvable. Not all worries have quick practical solutions. Some just require empathy and validation. For example, “I know how worried you feel about this and I’m sorry.” Sometimes though, you can support your child to problem-solve.
Practice these problem-solving steps with your child:
- Identify the problem.
- Brainstorm possible solutions.
- Evaluate the solutions (pros and cons) and select one or two to try.
- Make a solid plan to try those solutions, practicing any new skills that might be needed.
- Check back to see if adjustments or new solutions are needed.
When Children Take On Adult Worries
Very often I find that children take on adult worries. For example, they may worry about a parent’s health or their family’s financial difficulties.
As parents we need to recognise when they have taken on an adult worry. We need to remove this burden from them. For example, we can say: “this is something that I am dealing with, so you don’t have to”.
Although it may be hard for your child to let go of their worry, if you consistently emphasise that you are “holding” the worry and they don’t need to, they stand a good chance of being able to release it eventually.
Variations on the Worry Box
A simple but effective variation on the worry box is the worry journal, which encourages children to record their worries and anxieties as they come up daily. This approach creates a more structured system to deal with anxious feelings.
Regularly using a worry journal can help children identify unhelpful thinking patterns and learn to tackle these, strengthening their overall coping skills. It also provides a safe outlet for children to express their feelings, helping to alleviate stress and prevent overwhelming emotions from building up.
One advantage of a journal over the worry box is that you can look back over your previous worries and reflect on those that have now resolved themselves. However, many children prefer the physical act of posting their worries in a box.
Imaginary Worry Box
One alternative to a traditional, physical worry box is an imaginary worry box. This method may be more suitable for older kids who have developed the necessary imagination skills to visualise a mental box to store their worries. The ease of accessibility and portability of an imaginary worry box can make it an attractive option. However, it might not offer the same level of satisfaction or comfort that handling a physical box can provide.
Aim to stay flexible, attentive and responsive to the needs of your child. Explore different alternatives, discuss their pros and cons, and work together to find the approach that best supports their emotional wellbeing.
A worry box can be a great way to help children cope with their worries and big feelings. It provides a tangible place for them to deposit their concerns, which can be particularly beneficial for younger children who may struggle with abstract concepts.
However, there are different approaches to the worry box concept that can be adapted to suit children’s different needs and preferences.
Overall, you are teaching your child that they can be in charge of their worried thoughts, rather than the worried thoughts controlling them.
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 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.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting school-aged children with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.