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We are all a little frazzled and worn down at this time of year, and this is especially true after the past couple of very strange years. This means lots of us have worries or fears, and this includes kids.
I remember very clearly being a kid who worried a lot — and I have become an adult, and a mom, who still struggles with ruminating about things. When my daughter started to share her own worries and concerns regularly, I initially felt — well, worried — that she would be like me. Then I realized that being a worrier myself, I am in a great position to understand and not dismiss her concerns, and teach her the kind of tools that might have helped me as a kid. So we spend lot of time talking about what to do with feelings in the body, observing thoughts, and other techniques to deal with worries.
To be clear, none of this is a replacement for listening, and even seeking help where needed, when kids have a clear need for support. This is more about ideas for helping kids with those persistent fears, or mental loops, about monsters, separation, or “what ifs?”
As much as I’d love to promise my daughter that everything will be absolutely fine forever, no parent can do that. One of the main jobs of raising children is to gradually move from being the all-knowing source of comfort to the person that gives them the tools and resilience to eventually cope without you. So while I do comfort and reassure her when she brings me a worry, it’s often just that she can’t stop thinking about something troubling that she has seen, or a future scenario her brain has come up with. I really relate to this, and to that inability to move on from an idea. To help, I had come across the idea of small ritualistic actions that help us refocus our thoughts. These strategies work well for kids — and are fun too!
This is one I used when my kids were really little and worried about sleeping alone — a fear that was often expressed as fear of monsters. A friend suggested I try monster spray. I bought a clear plastic mister bottle, filled it with water and few drops of lavender oil (to hopefully promote sleep), and slapped on a big label that said “Monster Spray”. When needed, she was allowed to spray it around the corners of her room a little, and this simple act helped her to feel proactive and to focus on sleep.
Be sure to use a clean bottle, supervise them in using it, and keep it out of their reach when not in use.
Hug Button – When You Can’t Be With Them
My son has a big black button sewn on the sleeve of his favorite Batman sweater. It looks a little strange, but it’s something we came up with as a way of dealing with some low-level separation anxiety — like when he was at daycare, or if I was away working. I made a big deal of charging up the button with love and hugs, and he could press it to “get a hug” when I wasn’t there.
This is also a good tactic with kids going to school — you could make the link to home and your love through a keychain, a sticker, a pencil case or even a water bottle. It’s about a physical object that they associate with the love and warmth of home during the day.
Three Good Things
Sometimes when a run of bad events happens, I can find myself stringing it together into a “woe is me” narrative. It can be the same with kids. When reconnecting with my daughter after school I noticed that she was getting into the habit of reporting all the not-so-good things that happened — habitually, even if there wasn’t really anything new to add to an old concern.
So, as well as listening to and responding to these worries, I also started asking her to think of three good things that happened that day. It could be anything — playing a game with a friend, learning something new, doing a drawing she was proud of. And in no time at all, she was coming out of school not only with some worries to unpack from the day, but also adding her own three good things, unprompted. It is a subtle way to reframe conversations, and to see the day differently and not just negatively.
Worry Monsters and Worry Dolls
I remember coming across worry dolls as a kid at a friend’s house and was so envious! Surely if I had these little guys to tell my worries to, life would be sweet. The tiny little dolls made out of colorful fabric and yarn are a Guatemalan tradition. The idea is that you tell them your worries, and keep under the pillow to soothe your fears overnight.
I don’t have any worry dolls, but I did find some worry monsters that are a good option for kids. The ones I found are about palm-sized plushies with zippers for mouths. Kids who are comfortable with writing can write their problem on a slip of paper, fold it up and pop it in there to “eat” the worry. They could do a mini drawing if they’d prefer.
My kids decided if they have a worry in their monster they leave it outside their bedroom so I can see it when I go to bed. Often it is something we have already talked about, but it is a useful way to see what is bothering them. I take the slip of paper out, read it, and take it away.
If you don’t have worry dolls or a monster, putting a note into any sort of pocket, envelope or giving it to a toy could help. It is the getting it out of your head and taking action that seems to help.
For all of these techniques, we can use the magic and make-believe from childhood to access real cognitive benefits to boost our kids’ happiness … or help them to get unstuck from a worry they can’t quite leave alone.
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