What to do if your child worries too much
Lucy Schrader, HES Associate State Specialist and Building Strong Families Program Coordinator, University of Missouri Extension
“My daughter worries at bedtime every night. She always asks, ‘Will you check on me soon? Will you check on me after you go downstairs? Will you check on me before you go to bed?’ I always tell her I’ll be close by, but it doesn’t seem to help. What can I do?”
Some of this is normal worry. Children want to be reassured and they want to know they will be safe. Some need extra reassurance, and routines and traditions can help calm them. Some children, however, will not be calmed by your answers. It doesn’t matter how many times you reassure them or how many times you check on them, they still worry.
Children who have these kinds of worries might struggle in other situations, too. They may not want to meet new children or go to other kids’ homes because of their worries (for example: “What if I need something?” or “What if I don’t know what to do?”).
It’s easy for adults to say, “Don’t worry” or “Stop worrying so much.” Just saying these things, however, does not work. There are strategies that can help, and these strategies can give your child a way to gain control over the worries.
These strategies are from Dr. Dawn Huebner in her What to Do When You Worry Too Much workbook (2006):
Contain the worry
Dr. Huebner gives the example of relating worry with milk. When milk is in a container, you can hold and move it. The container does not take up much room. If however, that milk is not in the container, it spreads and flows out and makes a huge mess. The same goes with worry. It needs to be contained, or it will spread and grow.
Set up a worry time
If the child worries about many things throughout the day, set up a worry time. Set aside 15 minutes where a child can talk about her worries. Or, the child can write worries on paper and share with parents, grandparents or adults who will listen. (Make sure to eliminate distractions during this time.)
If the child starts to worry at another time, she should say, “Stop. That is for my worry time.” Then the child should do something else to distract herself. As a parent, you may need to help your child remember to wait for worry time by saying (in a positive and supportive voice), “Keep that for worry time. We’ll talk about it then. For now, how about riding your bike?”
Create a worry box
Have the child picture a box with a lock in his mind. This is a worry box. If a child starts to worry, he can imagine opening the box, putting the worry in the box, slamming the lid closed and locking the worry there. Better yet, you can create a worry box and encourage the child to write the worry on a piece of paper and put it in the box.
Remember, the child can then talk about the worry during worry time. You can help with strategies and ways to deal with the worry at that time.
Put the worry outside of the child
It can help the child to think of herself as being separate from the worry. Have the child picture the worry as a creature or thing. Let her create the image and then draw a picture. (Is it furry with claws, a dark cloud or just a blob?)
When the child starts to worry, she can picture that creature and can do something about it by talking back and standing up to it! Have the child write down things to say to the worry creature:
- Stop that!
- I don’t believe you!
- Get away!
This part will take practice. The first few times the child does this, the worry creature may return. The child should repeat her message in a firm voice (either in her mind or aloud), and could even imagine flicking the worry creature off of her shoulder or catching it in a net and kicking it out of the room.
As before, encourage the child to do something else (play, read, run up and down the stairs).
Do something else
Being involved with something is key in keeping away worries. The way our bodies and minds are, we cannot be relaxed and worried at the same time. This can be a powerful way for a child to keep worries away. If a child is playing with a toy or riding a bike, there is less room for the worry creature to bother the child.
Make a list of things to do. Remember, the child may not feel like going outside or playing, but help him understand that being active will help. The child might have to make himself be busy. As children realize that doing things helps keep worries away, it will be easier to want to play and do fun things. Here are some ideas:
- Take three deep breaths
- Run up and down the stairs five times
- Draw a picture
- Play music
- Sing a song
- Play a game
- Help a neighbor with yard work
- Take a pet for a walk
These strategies take practice and time. Give your child positive messages and tell him that you believe in him. You may want to get help from a school counselor or a licensed therapist/counselor.
Also, if you as the adult tend to worry, your child may have the same tendencies as you. These strategies can help you, too; you and your child can practice these strategies together.
In answer to the question at the beginning of this article, work on some of the ideas listed here, like helping your daughter create an image of her worry monster, talk back to it and create a worry box. At bedtime, say something like, “Sounds like your worry monster is bothering you again. How about we tell it to go to bed? Picture that furry green rascal. OK, ready?”
Have the daughter say something such as, “Go to bed worry thing! Leave me alone. I’m safe here and you get out!”
Then tell your daughter, “Great job! I love you!” Have her think of something happy or positive right after she told the worry monster to go to bed, and have her hug a favorite stuffed animal.
Huebner, D. (2006.) What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety. Magination press: Washington DC.
To find local Missouri Mental Health Centers, you can call Missouri Department of Mental Health at 800-364-9687 or go to dmh.mo.gov
To find a counselor in Missouri use the search feature on the Missouri Mental Health Counselors Association website.
Last Updated 08/27/2012