Q: [All Ages] “My child is anxious. No matter how much I reassure her she insists that her worries are justified. What more can I do to help her?”
A: It’s hard to rationalize with anxiety. It’s like speaking an entirely different language that anxiety doesn’t understand. Anxiety is emotional and instinctual, protecting the individual from (often misperceived) threat. Logic simply does not compute. And even if a child knows that there is nothing to worry about, he may still feel anxious. We need a more creative approach. Here are some strategies:
Draw the worry: Invite your child to draw what “worry” looks like. It could be an animal, color or emoji. This can start the process of helping the child see that she is not her worry. Rather, worry is inviting her to believe that she is not safe. Add a word bubble to allow worry to speak. Suggest that your child add a helpful figure that can tell worry: “You can help me be cautious without getting in my way.”
Change the picture: You’ve likely heard the old trick to get over stage fright: Picture the audience naked. When we change the picture associated with an anxiety-producing situation, we often feel differently about it. Whether imagining a favorite TV character by her side when walking into class or adding silly details to an otherwise frightening image, teach your child that while she may not be able to change the situation, she can change how she feels about it with the power of the imagination.
Write a song: While speaking reassuring words may not help, putting them to a tune may well. Invite your child to identify a popular song with reassuring lyrics he relates to. Or, add personalized lyrics to a familiar, soothing tune. Even humming a relaxing tune has been shown to calm the nervous system by emptying the mind of worrisome thoughts and slowing the breath.
Remember, anxiety, in small doses, can be a healthy response that helps us stay alert to what is important. Even heightened periods of anxiety can be a normal part of development (such as when a 3-year-old’s imagination is blossoming). However, if you feel like your child’s worries are persisting, consult with your pediatrician or a therapist.
Erica Curtis is author of “The Innovative Parent: Raising Connected, Happy, Successful Kids through Art.” She is a mother of three, board certified art therapist, and licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in San Juan Capistrano. You can find her online at www.therapywitherica.com.