Does Your Child Know the Worry Monster?

We all live with worry from time to time, some more than others, but as adults we’ve hopefully learned to deal with these uncomfortable feelings in productive ways. But how do you know if your child is harboring secret (or not so secret) worries and what are some steps to help them cope with this normal human emotion?

Worry may appear in your children in all sorts of fashions. Is your child afraid of being alone or away from you or your co-parent? Is your child fearful of “bad” things happening or of closed places like in the closet or under the bed? Is your child scared of getting bad grades or failing in school? Or does your child get anxious when they aren’t allowed to be the boss or control things amongst their friends and school peers? All of these suggest your child may be worrying.

The first thing you can do is to identify this feeling with your child as an actual “Worry “Monster,” a mythical creature whose job it is to make them feel scared.  Giving this feeling a name and a living and breathing presence allows your child to imagine this feeling (monster) as being outside of them and separate from them, allowing you to battle the Worry Monster (worry and fear) together. Find a picture of a goofy gargoyle, a gnarly-nosed troll or some other archetype to represent this and then it’s time start helping your child learn more skills to help drive this monster away.

First, we need to help your child understand that most worries stem from the Worry Monster tricking us into feeling uncomfortable or scared by messing with your thoughts. When we first feel one of these irrational thoughts, or thoughts that aren’t true, a small almond-shaped group of neurons in our brain called the amygdala goes off like a fire alarm. This is what triggers the “fight or flight” response. Our survival response is just that– it is designed to keep us alive! In order to do that, a slew of adrenaline is sent to our arms and legs to help us run or escape. However, this natural survival response causes a host of physiological symptoms within us such as heavy breathing, stomach pain, light headedness, heart palpitations, lump in the throat, clenched teeth, cold hands, etc. I have found it incredibly helpful to explain this response to children so that their body’s reactions to their fears become less of a mystery and scary to them. This helps them to feel empowered by knowing that it is just the Worry Monster making his visit again. This information tends to be very fascinating to kids, and again, helps them separate from the awful feelings.

Then it’s important to remind your children that these scary and overwhelming mental and physical sensations always DO go away. Let them know it’s like surfing a wave, they will get through it if they hang on for the ride knowing that the Worry Monster’s visit never lasts.

Through this process of understanding what worry is and what worry does, your child will learn that in the end they have the power to drive the monster away. By using their thinking brain (which understands all this solid information you’ve given them) over their emotional brain, your child can work towards being happier and more productive. Next time, we’ll talk about how children can work on changing their thoughts to further manage their worries and “tame the monster.”

This blog originally appeared on Patch.com. The content was adapted from Chapter 2 of my new book Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child’s Fears which comes out November 30, 2013 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 psychological assessments, consultations, and treatment for children, their parents, and families.