Anxiety is one of the most prevalent issues among the young clients I counsel. Children feel anxious over events or something in their environment. They experience physical and mental symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, stomach cramps, and persistent thoughts. These anxieties may lead to sleepless nights, resistance to go places, oppositional behavior, repetitive patterns, or withdrawal. When anxiety is persistent and high, a professional should be employed. When anxiety seems time-limited or situational, then parents can use these tools to help their children cope.
The Worry Spill. Children and adults talk to me frequently about what I call a worry spill. The worries start out quite honestly and grow into huge monsters. A child might consistently worry that he will forget to bring his homework to school. Before he knows it, the feeling spills into fretting over whether he’ll forget his lunch, although he has never forgotten his lunch before. In these cases, worrying takes on a life of its own. Thus, containment is the only solution!
How does one contain worrying? First, it’s important for people to visualize a worry spill. In counseling, I often draw out an Issues Map, a map shaped like the United States, for instance, with different lines separating different issues. For a child, the map might include homework, chores, band, friends, family, or world peace. Basically anything the child believes is an issue in his life. Once an Issues Map is drawn, I take a different colored pen and we decide when and where the worrying all started. Usually, there is a starting point. It could have been the day when homework wasn’t turned in or an evening when mom and dad fought. We put a big X on the spot to show our starting point. Next, we talk about how worries spill over into new worries when concerns are not addressed. We take a marker and draw the worry bleeding over into other areas on the Issues Map. By the time we are done coloring in the map, it is evident that the worries are out of control.
Finally, we talk about containment. We discuss how worrying or anxiety is a helpful energy when we focus it on solving a particular problem. For instance, the problem might be how can I feel assured that I will remember my lunch? The solution might be to place a sign on the front door that says, “Remember your lunch.” If we spend time problem solving and then following through with our solutions our worries often go away. Once the original issue is solved, the other issues tend to deflate.
The Worry Box. Some children live with a great deal of anxiety. They worry over school. They fret over sports. They have concerns over friends and family. They feel overwhelmed. To help these children cope, I explain to them that sometimes their “emotional cup” feels full. Thus, when parents ask for a chore to be done, these children can easily break into tears or burst in a rage. Parents feel as if they are “walking on eggshells” when children are in this state. They often don’t realize how easily they can tip the emotional cup over with simple requests. Your children’s worries are important to them. And when children have too many worries, they may be cranky a lot and might even have trouble sleeping.
One way to help relieve your children of their worries is to help define what’s bothering them and then put their worries in a literal box. First you say, “I understand that your worries are important to you but they are also overwhelming sometimes. Your worries sometimes make you cry or get you angry and sometimes you lose sleep. I want to help you. Let’s write your worries down and then put them in this box. As you have new worries you can add them to the box. When the worries feel too heavy, I will carry them for you. I can even keep them overnight. I will take care of them and when you want them back, you can take them back. I am your parent and I will do this for you. I can handle the weight of your worries when you cannot.”
Then you help your child write her worries on a piece of paper. Try the ‘I feel… when… because…” formula. An example might be “I feel afraid when I go to bed because there might be something under my bed.” Then place the written worry in a special box. This process allows children to let go and feel safe. It’s symbolic and can show your child that she is not in this alone. Sometimes, children never come back for their worries.
Parent-Child Journal. Opening up communication with your child is very important. If you find the talking-listening routine a little too much for now, try the parent-child journal. First, purchase a sturdy journal. Then, write the first entry on the first page describing the purpose of the journal. You might say, “Sometimes talking about your worries is difficult. I know it has been for me at times. But writing down our problems might feel easier. I am hoping that this journal is our way to communicate about difficult things until we feel more comfortable talking about them. You will not get in trouble for anything you write and you are not expected to talk about it later. However, you’re free to talk about it if you choose.
Open the journal with this entry: “I sometimes worry about… and this is how I cope with that worry.” If you have some communication skills, sit down with your child and explain that the purpose of the journal is to open up communication. Once you’ve written your entry, place the journal under your child’s pillow. Wait patiently for a response. Once you receive your child’s entry, write back thoughtfully and timely. After a while, take your child out for a “date” or spend alone time and talk about whatever comes up. Slowly but surely you’ll find that the pages of your journaling activity will come to life verbally, however, never push beyond your child’s boundaries. Pushing can lead to a shut down in communication.
These three solutions to moderate anxiety have proven helpful when parents use them calmly. It’s always important to remember that as the parent you model calm behavior and problem solving skills. Talk your children through your techniques for coping with stress. If you find that you are not great at handling your own worries, get some help for yourself and share you discoveries with your child. Stress might be a natural part of being human, but decreasing stress and anxiety certainly makes for a healthier, happier lifestyle.
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