Simple Steps For Families To Conquer The Worry Monster
Parents and children need to understand anxiety, worry, and fear to fight back.
Posted Dec 17, 2013
Are you concerned why your child worries so much?
Are you exhausted by the amount of energy it take to help your child get to school, go to social events, and get through the day?
Are you tired of feeling worried about all your responsibilities, your child’s day and future, and how everything will get done and turn out?
Well, so am I.
As a psychologist, I have seen far too many people suffer from worry and fear. They are wonderful people with goals and dreams that are hampered by their worries and fears about what “could happen.” I am also a parent of three children who have experienced worry and fear about many things at different times in their lives. It can be very stressful and scary for them, and very stressful and upsetting for my wife and I. Finally, I have experienced worry and perfectionism too. I know first hand how it feels to obsess about not doing well enough, being good enough, and things not working out as I think they should.
The National Institutes of Health website stats are grim "Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older (about 18%) in a given year, causing them to be filled with fearfulness and uncertainty.” Millions upon millions of children, adolescents, and adults experience anxiety every year. For adults, many have experienced anxiety since childhood. However, the millions who are actually diagnosed by a mental health or medical provider are only a fraction of those who experience worry and fear. That is because many people live with mild to moderate levels of anxiety and think it is normal to feel this way. Further, many children and adolescents express their anxiety through bodily sensations (headaches or stomachaches) or behavior that is seen as difficult (oppositional, avoidant, explosive and/or emotional meltdowns). The bottom line is that too many people – young and old – are living in distress and are limited by worry and fear. Through my own experiences, experiences as a father, and my experiences working with courageous clients, I have found useful strategies that are extremely effective in helping children, adolescents, and adults take a stand against the creature that bullies us into being lesser versions of ourselves – the Worry Monster!
In my practice and in my personal life, I have seen time and time again that children (and adults) can be given information about how their brain and body works in worry and fear situations, how their thoughts trigger their “fight or flight” response, how changing their thoughts changes their mood, how taking “baby steps” toward anything scary makes them feel stronger, and how they can develop a “tool box” of strategies to stand up to the Worry Monster, engage in life, and achieve their goals.
So who is the Worry Monster? He is the mythical creature that bullies us, just like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Remember when Toto pulled back the curtain and exposed the little man on a power trip who was making Dorothy and her friends feel weak and powerless? That is what the Worry Monster does. He hides in the shadows and bullies and intimidates our children (and us) into feeling scared by telling us all the bad things that “might” happen. The Worry Monster is the guy who is whispering all the “what if…” and “what will people think if…” statements in our brains. He knows that if he says these things, he will activate your child’s amygdala (fear center in our brain) and start the anxiety and fear response. Then comes the tears, crying, screaming, running away, melting down, and refusal. Here’s the deal: you and your child can team up on the bully and mount victories against him!
Here is what you do to drive the Worry Monster away:
• Teach your child that our brains are built to keep us alive and that our survival response goes off when the Worry Monster tells us worrisome and scary things. When this happens, our blood supply leaves our brain and stomach and gets re-routed to our arms and legs so we can fight or run. However, without this blood in our brains and stomachaches, we get headaches, feel dizzy, lightheaded, stomachaches, cramping, and butterflies. You can help your child learn to identify when the Worry Monster is visiting him because of how his body feels when he comes.
• Make a list of all the things your child worries about because the Worry Monster doesn’t want us to talk about him and the more we expose him and his ways, the less powerful he gets. Next to the list of worries, help your child identify what the Worry Monster whispers to him to make him feel scared (“You are going to fail…Everyone will laugh at you…You mom is going to forget you…Something bad is going to happen”).
• Help your child change his thinking and talk back to the Worry Monster (“I don’t have to listen to you…You are full of lies…My mom never forgets me…I study for tests and always do fine.”)
• Develop a “practice plan” to take steps against the Worry Monster. For example, if your child is afraid of dogs, you and she look at a book of dogs, then go to a dog shelter where they are caged, then go to a friend’s house where their dog is in the backyard, and so on. Each “victory” can be rewarded as motivation to take the next courageous step.
• The final step, besides practice and working the plan over and over, is to help your child make a coping “Tool Box” to have at their disposal for when the Worry Monster comes to visit. This tool box can consist of various strategies such as: knowing how his body feels when the Worry Monster visits; recognizing the usual things the Worry Monster whispers to him; having a list of statements to talk back to him and change what he is saying (and your child is thinking); taking three deep breathes when he feels nervous or scared; telling you or a teacher when the Worry Monster is visiting; exercising; reading; or anything else that distracts your child from the scary thoughts and feelings.
The bottom line is that life is too short and precious to live in fear and worry about all the “possibilities” of what “could” happen. We need to model living versus worrying for our children. We need to help our children feel “good enough” versus the desire or drive to be “perfect.” The good news is that these strategies work! It takes patience, practice, and perseverance.
I hope you will join me in taking a stand against the Worry Monster. You can turn your worrier (and yourselves) into a warrior! Please tell us your story here in the comments on PT and in my new Worry Warrior community on DrDanPeters.com (www.drdanpeters.com).