Worry is not only a natural part of childhood, it’s a natural part of life. Our brains were designed to worry, if they weren’t our ancestors would have been killed by saber tooth tigers way back in the cave man days. Worry can keep us safe, but worrying too much can keep our Littles from completing their daily tasks like going to bed on their own or using the potty.
It can be difficult to describe feelings and their impact to our kids. The concept can feel abstract, especially since we can never really know how another person is feeling. Here’s a little tip to talk to your kids about worry and how to conquer it.
I describe a worry bug to my clients. This bug feeds on our worries and although he appears friendly enough, he makes our worries bigger. The more we feed our worry bug by giving in to the worry (ex: not going potty because there is a scary shadow in the bathroom), the bigger or worry bug gets and the louder he is! We keep giving in to the worry, we keep feeding the bug! However, each time we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone and conquer a worry (behaviorally speaking, each time we complete the anxiety producing task) we squish the worry bug down to the ground!
Clinically speaking what I’m really saying is that worry is a process that takes place in our brain. If we reinforce the worry by avoiding the task, our brain learns that this task should be anxiety provoking, guaranteeing we’ll feel anxiety the next time the task comes around. In order to experience less anxiety with the task, we have to complete the task despite feeling anxious. This will tell the brain that it is a false alarm and hopefully the anxiety will lessen with more exposure.
My son just recently became fearful of being in a room by himself. I talked to him about his fear, acknowledged that I used to feel this way too, and helped him challenge the thought a bit. Here is what that looked like
Me: Why don’t you want to go into your room by yourself
J: Because it’s scary.
Me: I used to feel that way too when I was a kid. I understand how you feel. But do you know that our home is safe, there isn’t anything scary in here?
J: Yeah. I do.
Me: And our house is small, Daddy and I can hear everything that goes on, so if something scary did happen, we’d be right there.
Me: So how about we don’t feed this worry bug, let’s go squash him. Run in your room and throw your clothes in the hamper. When you get back we’ll squish the worry bug together.
J runs to his room and back. We jump up and down on our pretend worry bug, making a big deal of the success!
Abby Withee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Rolling Hills Estates and Redondo Beach. With a focus on mindful practices, Abby works with children, adolescents, adults, and families to address a variety of diagnoses and presenting issues. For a great resource on anxiety for kids, check out her blog At Home Help for Your Child’s Anxiety.