I had an interesting conversation with the strong willed Miss 3.5 this morning. It was a usual morning, struggling to get her ready to leave the house and her not wanting to clean her teeth (AGAIN!). I noticed she had run off to her bedroom while I was getting ready. I went to ask why she wasn’t brushing her teeth, and she answered that she was worried daddy was going to get hurt at work. One part of me was saddened, such a little person was worrying about something going wrong. Another part however felt proud that she was able to articulate so clearly what she was thinking and feeling and happy that she was able to share it with me. I took the opportunity to teach her something I have taught so many other young children who present to my clinic with anxiety issues. So I knelt down next to her and put my hand on her should and said to her ‘Oh I see, Mr Worries has come to visit you. He likes to say things to children that make them feel worried or scared. And he’s a bit of a trickster and doesn’t always tell the truth’. She looked at me, quite intrigued, so I continued ‘I wonder if he’s telling the truth this time’, I looked at her with a questioning look on my face ‘Daddy doesn’t normally get hurt at work, does he?’ , she shook her head ‘Well I think that maybe Mr Worries is tricking you, and when he does that we need to tell him to go away, can you tell him to go away?’ and she answered ‘Go away Mr Worry’ in a stern voice, straightened up her posture, smiled and then continued on with her morning routine.
It is important when children talk to you about their worries to validate what they are experiencing , rather than just dismissing it with ‘don’t be silly’. This opens up an opportunity to teach them important life skills. One of the first things I do with children is help them externalise their worries, giving it a name, like ‘Mr Worry’, or the ‘Worry Monster’. This helps them gain some psychological distance from the anxiety. It also helps you position yourself with your child and against their anxiety. You can then teach them to talk back to the anxiety, knowing that the anxious mind tends to distort thinking and perceptions about reality. Once you have opened up the dialogue around their worries whenever they need it, you can work towards playing games with them around the worry thoughts to help them further process and overcome these fears. For example, if they like superheros, you can get them use a spider man web to shoot the worry thought up to the roof or if they like fairies, shake a magic wand at the worry thought and make it go up in a puff of smoke. The more creative and fun you can make it for them the better. Help them out, play the game with them.
This is a good place to start in helping children manage their anxieties. If their anxiety is ongoing and persistent, i.e. getting in the way of their everyday functioning, it’s good idea to consult with a child therapist about how to proceed.
Sherry-Lee Smith is a psychologist, mother and gentle parenting advocate. She works in private practice in Mt Lawley, Perth WA. Sherry is available for parent consultations and child psychotherapy. If you would like further information about her services please click here.