The Worry Monster
Understanding your child’s anxiety
For a child, it is normal to experience worry, particularly as they begin to explore the world and develop their own sense of identity. Children may worry about many different things, and whilst these worries might seem harmless to us as adults, they can cause a child a great deal of distress. Sometimes these worries can be so upsetting that it can affect their day-to-day activities, making them harder to carry out or enjoy. For example, they might be worried about an upcoming test at school which may lead them to want to avoid attending, or they may be concerned about a friend’s upcoming birthday party.
Anxiety affects how we think, what we do and how our bodies feel. Our thoughts/worries drive our feelings of anxiety and can affect how we respond. Anxiety affects us physiologically and some young children might report physical complaints such as having a headache or a sore tummy, and they may also appear more restless and fidgety than usual. Sometimes nervous habits can develop such as nail biting and shaking their leg. When something feels scary or uncomfortable it is natural to want to avoid it. Children may therefore choose to opt-out of certain activities without expressing or fully understanding why. What we know is that whilst avoidance can help alleviate worries in the short-term, it actually reinforces and exacerbates in the long-term.
How to talk about anxiety
It can be difficult to talk about how anxious we feel, particularly for young children who might not recognise this feeling yet or have the words to describe it. Creating a character or a creature, like the ‘Worry Monster’, can be used to resemble your child’s anxiety and is a great way of developing a shared and age-appropriate language for discussing anxiety. You might want to support your child to visualise the character by drawing it out – it might be a certain colour, with particular features and for some, they might want to add speech bubbles which represent the specific worries they are experiencing.
The character can then be brought to life in situations where your child appears to be worrying. For example, if you notice your child is nervous in the car on the way to an after-school club you can use this idea to discuss their anxiety non-judgementally. For example, you may say things such as “is the worry monster bothering you?” or “has the worry monster come to visit again?”. This can help your child to separate themselves from the feeling of anxiety, and to see that it is not fundamental to who they are: it comes and goes, and they do have power to influence it.
Responding to the worry monster
It can be helpful to team up with your child against the worry monster and come up with ways of responding to it. The phrases below might help make the worry monster appear smaller and less powerful:
“Let’s trap the monster and put it in a jar”
“We don’t have to listen to the monster today”
“Can you step on him or squash him?”
“Shall we try and fight the monster together?”
“I don’t believe what the monster is saying is true, do you?”
It can be helpful for a parent to model having fears and worries themselves, and even letting your child know that you have your own worry monster which pops up from time to time. You can then model the ways in which you respond to this to help, and role play how you might encourage yourself to carry out the feared activity despite feeling anxious. This will help to normalise worry and encourage your child to approach the situation rather than avoid it as a way of tackling the monster. Simply noticing your child’s worry and making space for it in your conversations is an important first step in supporting them with their anxiety.
For more information about accessing support for your child to manage anxiety and worry, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Dr Frankie Washington, Associate Clinical Psychologist at The Fitzrovia Psychology Clinic