How does your garden grow?
Overcoming childhood anxiety
By Angeline Schellenberg | Thursday, June 10, 2010
On our daughter's bedroom door, a red sign reads, "Go away stupid BeBe!" "Stupid" is a forbidden word at our house, but when it comes to her invisible "worry bug" BeBe, we make an exception. My little girl's worries started with one plugged toilet and one anxious thought"we're going to drown!"that led to years of fear over flushing toilets. The worry habit "spilled over" into perfectionism over schoolwork and low self-esteem.
Childhood is supposed to be a carefree time, but for the many children who struggle with anxiety, it is anything but. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, "Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental health problems...[affecting] approximately 1 in 10 people" (http://manitoba.cmha.ca). On the nature−nurture question, the answer is "yes": anxiety is passed on genetically and learned environmentally. In my extended family, the worriers outnumber the cool cucumbers 100-1.
The Bible commands us not to "be anxious about anything," but if your child is a worrier, it's not a matter of will power; it's a matter of gardening. Worries, like tomatoes, only grow if you tend them, writes clinical psychologist Dawn Huebner. According to her workbook What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, your child can stop watering their worries by externalizing, containing and replacing them.
Children who worry a lot think "they" are their worries. They need to hear that worries are just thoughts from outside them which they can entertain or reject. Encourage young children to picture worry as a bug buzzing in their ear and practise telling that bug to buzz off!
One way to externalize worries is putting them on paper. The Psalmist's laments always turned into songs of praise. God is a creative God, transforming chaos into beauty. When children draw or write their worries, their creative processlike the Psalmist'sconnects them to their Creator. And humourdrawing cartoons and writing silly names for their bugactually makes worry bugs shrink!
Most thinking is best done "outside the box," but anxious thoughts belong in one. Once your child gets his worries out of his head, you can contain them in time and in space. Huebner recommends taking notes and drawings of your child's worries and locking them away in a box or jar. When the topics in the "worry jar" lose their sting, they get a new home: the "success jar." This is also a place to put notes about things your child has done well: you were brave at the dentist; you didn't get upset when you got a spelling word wrong. Great job!
Schedule times for worry. This may sound counterintuitive, but by deciding when she will allow herself to talk about her worries, my daughter is putting herself, not her worry, in the driver's seat. We try to remember to crack open the worry jar after supper. Pick 10 minutes a day that work for youjust not right before bedtime! It's comforting for your child to know there is a regular time each day when mom or dad is totally available. Huebner recommends, if your child asks anxious "What if?" questions any other time, rather than reassuring her (which can pour fertilizer on the worry), remind her to wait till "worry time." Worries that have to wait for tending sometimes shrivel up on their own, so by "worry time," all that's left to talk about is success!
It's impossible to stop thinking about something (for instance: whatever you do, don't think about a cheeseburger right now) unless you replace it with something else. Taking deep breaths, listening to music, imagining you and your child are at the beach, becoming engrossed in a favourite book and praying are all great worry replacements. Nurture fun hobbies, happy thought and relaxation habits, and watch them grow.
One day my daughter brought home her spelling notebook, full of frustrated scribbles, eraser smudges and tear-stained mistakes. She'd started composing sentences using her new spelling words: slate, safe, sale. The second sentence caught my eye: "I am safe with God."
Now that's one for the success jar. Take that, stupid BeBe!
Angeline Schellenberg is a freelance writer and part-time MB Herald copy editor. She holds a master's degree in biblical studies from Providence Theological Seminary.
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