Leadership and motivational speaker Johnny Tan interviews Dr. Dan Peters, author of Make Your Worrier a Warrior, on how you can help your child create his or her very own “toolbox” to combat fear and anxiety.
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In the first installment of my three-part blog series on Worry and your child, we talked about the definition of worry. In my second installment, we discussed the various types of worry. In this final installment, I will share with you a great tactic to help your child start tackling, and taking down, the Worry Monster.
Now that you understand the effects of worry on your child, and your child understands that they are dealing with something that is perfectly natural (although really scary), your job is to help your child create a plan to conquer the Worry Monster. Part of this plan involves creating a tool box of strategies your child can carry around in their mind at all times to help when episodes of worry arise. One of these tools is to make a Worry List and recognize what the Worry Monster tells him to make him feel scared.
Making a worry list is more fun than one would think, especially if you do it as a family. The goal is for you and your child to make an exhaustive list of everything they worry about. It is a basically a brainstorming session. For example, you child might say “taking tests…going to a party…recess.” Remember to remind your child that the Worry Monster doesn’t like us to talk about him or how he works, so the more you put on the list the better.
Once you have made the list, ask your child to apply a scare ranking for how each thought makes him feel. You can teach him about how his ranking will tell you which things are scariest, and which are least scary. When the scare rankings decrease, this will be a way to show that he is getting stronger than the Worry Monster.
As you read off each worry or fear, ask your child to give it a “scare” rating on a scale of 1-10 using the following scale:
· 1-3 Mild discomfort– Uncomfortable and apprehensive
· 4-7 Moderate discomfort– Scared and anxious
· 8-10 Severe discomfort– Very scared and anxious (almost panic)
Once you have done this, put the worries and fears in order starting with the most powerful (severe) at the top, down to the least (mild). You have just created your priority list of which worries and fears to tackle first. You are going to start with the least scary ones first.
Now tell your child that you and he are going to start making the Worry Monster weak by uncovering his strategies and tactics. You are going to expose his secrets by writing down what he tells your child to make him worried and scared. Read each worry and ask your child what the Worry Monster tells him about each one. Again, make as exhaustive a list as possible.
Take the top 1-3 worries or fears that your child is willing to work on. Remember you can use incentives if you need to (we all need motivators to do things that are scary or we don’t want to do). Make a list of the scary thoughts that your child identified (i.e. what the Worry Monster said) related to each fear, and then next to those thoughts, help your child choose new thoughts that are more realistic and more adaptive. Here are some useful questions to ask your child both while you are helping to change his thoughts during this exercise and in real time when the Worry Monster is visiting:
· What are you thinking?
· What is the Worry Monster saying to you? Is he saying that you are going to fail? Is he saying that everyone will laugh at you? Is he telling you that you aren’t smart enough?
· Is the thought realistic– is it true? Can you state evidence to prove it’s true or not true?
· How can you think about this differently?
· What can you think instead that is more true and realistic?
Particularly at first, you will need to help your child come up with contradictory evidence to her fears and alternative ways to think. For example, if your child is afraid of tests, you may help them change her thinking to “I don’t like tests, but I usually do fine” or “I studied, so I am prepared.” Over time, your child will be able to do it on her own with your prompting, and eventually without needing you to prompt her at all. In this example, the goal is for your child to take a test without feeling so worried before or during the test.
Once she conquers her test-taking fear, she is ready for the next one, and then the next, and the next. Once this list is confronted on a regular basis, your child will be able to see how this sort of confrontation of a worry and change of thinking towards that worry will diminish the actual worry. Now, she is armed with an important tactic in overcoming her anxiety obstacles and learning how to become a victorious warrior in life!
This blog originally appeared on Patch.com. The content was adapted from Chapter 10 of my book Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child’s Fears, now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local independent book store. A companion book written just for children is also available — From Worrier to Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Fears.
Dan Peters, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and co-founder of the Summit Center, which provides educational and psychological assessments, consultations, and treatment for children, their parents, and families.
Dr. Dan Peters is interviewed for “The new worry epidemic: Experts now argue it can have devastating effects on work, health and children” by Anne Kingston in Maclean’s, February 5, 2014. The article details how worrying has become endemic. “The term ‘worrying’ has replaced ‘thinking,’ says California-based clinical psychologist Daniel Peters, the author of two new books”â€From Worrier to Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Fears (For Kids and Teens) and Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child’s Fears, directed at parents. ‘People don’t say, “ËœI’m thinking about this’ anymore; they say, “ËœI’m worrying about this.’ ”
I was either always constantly either worrying about the past, or was in fear of what may come to pass in the future. What I didn’t realize until the last year or so, is that I was toggling between depression and anxiety. I named my worry monster 4 years ago, and this helped me not only disidentify with the worry and fear, but it also got me to the present moment. In the present moment, everything is already OK. I am constantly getting myself to the present moment, which naturally gets me into my parasympathetic nervous system. When I tap into that calm presence, the fight or flight response no longer exists. I think the worry and fear always had me in the flight or flight response. My worry monster is named Eeyore, and I literally did feel like a rain cloud was constantly over me. I won’t say that feeling is always gone, but it is greatly reduced. When I feel anxious or worried now, I give poor little Eeyore a cracker, then pat him on the head. Then, I get to the present moment, where worry melts away. Your book is wonderful, and the earlier kids learn these techniques, the better.
In my last blog, I talk about worry and anxiety and how these emotions manifest themselves as stressors for our children both physically and emotionally. I talked about how we as parents can treat these feelings as if they were brought about by the Worry Monster, which our children can learn to battle like warriors with the right knowledge and tools.
Now, in this second installment of this series, I will lay out all of the faces the Worry Monster can wear from the most basic levels of stress to the most challenging types of anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is basically the generalized and widespread Worry Monster. GAD describes what happens when a child or adult experiences ongoing worry that is excessive, pervasive, and constant about most topics. Children who have generalized anxiety worry about many things– if you are going to pick them up, if they are going to get laughed at, if their school work is good enough, and if they look okay. The list goes on. This is where the Worry Monster is always around and constantly messing with your child.
Panic disorders or panic attacks are the purest form of the fear response, in which a person breathes very rapidly but in such a shallow way that can’t take in enough oxygen, and there is a build up of carbon dioxide in the blood that triggers a feeling of panic. The “fight or flight” response is activated to help your child “survive.” An onslaught of physiological sensations caused by adrenalin flooding the body is experienced. The problem is that this response is activated when your child doesn’t need it– during a test, or before a birthday party, musical performance, or swim meet. The Worry Monster pounces and attacks swiftly in the case of panic.
Agoraphobia is the term we use when a person thinks he is about to have a panic attack, whether he’s had one or not, and he fears he will be unable to escape the situation once he starts to panic. It is somewhat like a fear of becoming fearful. Because the individual wants to avoid the panic attack, as well as related feelings of embarrassment, he avoids places and situations where he fears he might experience an attack. Whenever he runs away or avoids a situation, his anxiety is reduced – temporarily. Except that now his running away and avoiding has been reinforced, making it even more difficult for him to overcome his fear, and restricting his life experiences. This makes the Worry Monster’s hold stronger and stronger.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterized by an anxiety-producing, often persistent and repeating thought or idea– an obsession– that is both intrusive and may be embarrassing. A compulsion, on the other hand, is a repetitive, intentional behavior that is done to try to relive the anxiety produced by the thought. Most people think of OCD in terms of flipping light switches on and off repeatedly or washing one’s hands excessively. These are common OCD behaviors. However, behind these behaviors are repetitive irrational thoughts that are very distressing and won’t go away. In most cases, the child with OCD has to do some specific thing to feel okay, like touch the doorway in a certain place when walking through it, or tapping each leg the same number of times, or kissing you on both sides of your face before bedtime. The Worry Monster tricks your child into thinking that engaging in random and repetitive acts or thinking repetitive random thoughts, bad things won’t happen and he will be okay.
Sometimes anxiety is tightly focused. A specific phobia is a restrictive fear that is excessive, unreasonable, and triggered by the presence or anticipation of a specific object like a snake or spider or a frightening situation such as public speaking or flying in an airplane. These phobias are usually easy to avoid, such as avoiding insects by never going camping and avoiding planes by never flying, though there are some exceptions. These specific fears, however, can impact not only the child but also the family as in the case of fear of dogs. This fear can keep a child and family from parks, soccer games, and friend’s houses. The Worry Monster is targeted in these cases.
A social phobia is a persistent fear of social or performance situations in which a child is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny from others. This is basically the fear of embarrassment or humiliation. (“The kids are going to laugh at me,” “Look how they look at me,” “They’re making fun of me,” “What if I forget my lines,” “What if I say something stupid,” etc.) Now there could be some truth to those statements, right? We all know kids who actually have these experiences at some time or another, however the child’s response when the Worry Monster is visiting can be extreme. Examples of extreme behavior include refusal to go to school or to participate in school activities and refusal to attend social events.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety is when a child is afraid to leave her parents and feels that something bad is going to happen to her or her parents while they are apart. When your child is quite young, it is developmentally appropriate for her to not want to be away from you. However, as a child ages, she is expected to be more comfortable separating from her parents or primary caretaker, usually in preschool and by kindergarten. The Worry Monster tells many kids they will not be okay without their parents, causing intense and scary worry and fear.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a term familiar to many people because so many of our veterans experience it once they come home from war. They have experienced various traumas, and they have nightmares or flashbacks to the incidents. This same term also applies to anyone, including a child, who experiences some kind of frightening trauma and cannot seem to recover from it. Usually it is a situation in which there is intense fear of permanent injury or damage. Sometimes it can be a near death experience or watching someone else’s near death experience. A child watching parents physically fight may fear the death or severe harm of a parent. A child who is abused or experiences harsh physical punishment can develop PTSD. A child with PTSD may experience emotional numbing, nightmares, and flashbacks of the traumatic experience. The child will then avoid situations that remind him of the traumatic situation, and he may be jumpy and nervous, and/or may have extreme emotional meltdowns. This can also happen when a child has severe and chronic negative experiences at school.
Perfectionism is not an actual anxiety diagnosis but it can definitely wreak havoc with our lives and be pervasive and debilitating for our children. The core feature of perfectionism is a fear of failure. The perfectionist feels that we can never be good enough– that there is always more that can be done. This kind of thinking is typically negative, self-critical, defeating and can lead to avoidance. A child would rather not try a new task, for example, than risk not doing it well or failing.
Is the Worry Monster visiting your child without an invitation? Remember, just because your child may be experiencing some of the above, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a “diagnosis”. However, If any of these sound like something you are going through with your own child, or something your child may be experiencing, make sure to check this blog in two weeks when I lay out some solid techniques to help your child empower themselves against this pesky and annoying bully. If you are concerned about the level of your child’s worry or fear, please talk to your child’s doctor or counselor.
This blog originally appeared on Patch.com. The content was adapted from Chapter 3 of my new book Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child’s Fears from Great Potential Press. A companion book written just for children is also available —From Worrier to Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Fears.
Dan Peters, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and co-founder of the Summit Center, which provides educational and neuropsychological assessments, consultation, and treatment for children, parents, adults, and families. Using a strength-based approach, Summit Center’s team of professionals help individuals and families maximize their developmental potential.