Childhood worry seems to be rising as rapidly as COVID-19 cases. More and more children are having trouble sleeping, complaining about their fears, not doing well in school, and showing physical symptoms. Does this sound like your child? What if you have you tried everything, but your child is still anxious? What if you already made the Worry Box as described in Red Tricycle and the Worry Box is overflowing with worries that need to be addressed? If so, I have the perfect strategy for you to try—Worry Time.
Like making and using the Worry Box, this technique is so simple and so effective that it should be in every parent’s tool box. Both the Worry Box and Worry Time strategies are forms of containment or ways to contain worries in both physical space and time. Like the strategies in the book Shrinking the Worry Monster, they come from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a highly regarded form of anxiety intervention. A fuller description of CBT and containment is in the above mentioned Worry Box article.
Thinking versus Worrying
First, let’s look at the difference between thinking versus worrying. Thinking is a good thing. It can involve reflecting, reasoning, and problem solving. It can lead to purposeful action which allows the mind to move on.
In contrast, worrying is problem solving gone amiss. What starts out as a concern, ultimately turns into an unhealthy preoccupation. The mind obsesses over problems without resolution and gets stuck in the worry mode. Worrying is very common during times of difficulty or change (like now). It is very important to note that if worrying is excessive in childhood and does not have parental or professional intervention, it can develop into a serious anxiety disorder in adulthood. And adult anxiety is much harder to resolve than childhood anxiety.
Chronic Worrying versus Control
Most chronic worriers, both children and adults, believe they CANNOT control their anxious thoughts. It is as if the worriers are caught in a downward spiral where an anxious thought arises, the problem seems unsolvable, and then physical symptoms of anxiety take over. This pattern repeats over and over. It is so emotionally painful that people will do anything to avoid the worry thoughts, but we know that doesn’t work. Just try looking at a picture of a purple cat and then tell yourself that you will NOT think about that cat for one whole minute. Chances are, you will think about that cat the entire minute.
The good news is that anyone CAN learn to control how and when to worry. It takes using good, research-based strategies and practice. My favorite tools come from CBT and include talking back to the worry, containing the worry in a Worry Box, and using Worry Time. The last two strategies contain worries so they aren’t just running amok in the brain 24/7.
Steps for Worry Time
The goal for Worry Time is not to stop worries, but to reduce the time spent on the anxious thoughts. The steps are a template for training your child to contain his worries within 15-20 minutes a day. Of course, it will take regular practice, but it is a very achievable goal.
Step 1. Schedule Worry
Set up a daily Worry Time where you will sit quietly and listen to your child talk about his worries for 15-20 minutes. Worry Time should be the same time everyday. Ideally there should be no interruptions from siblings, no phone calls, and no distracting noises. This is your time to focus on your child and whatever he has to say. Some people find it useful to schedule it late enough in the day that your child actually has worries built up, but not within an hour or two of bedtime. Many parents find that scheduling Worry Time just before cooking and eating dinner can be an effective way to end the Worry Time.
Step 2. Explain Worry Time to Your Child
Tell your child that you and he are going to start having a special time together called Worry Time. It will happen from 4:00 to 4:20 (let’s say) and he gets to tell you everything and anything about his worries. You will listen closely, but mostly this is his time to talk. You may not say that any of his worries are silly, but instead you will mostly accept what he has to say. When Worry Time is over (maybe you set a timer), tell your child that you really appreciate all the concerns he has told you and you look forward to Worry Time tomorrow.
Step 3. Teach the One Rule
Teach him that there is only one rule with Worry Time. You will not listen to his worries when it is not Worry Time. You know this will be hard, but you will give him other things to do with his worries. Tell him that eventually his worries will be smaller because of Worry Time.
Step 4. What To Do When It Isn’t Worry Time
Discuss other ways to contain his worries. He can write them down and put them in the Worry Box, he can write or draw his worries in a notebook, or he can imagine putting them in a safe and locking them up. At the next Worry Time, he should pull out his Worry Box or his notebook and share everything that is in there.
Tell your child that another thing to do with worries is to do something else (distract). How about going outside, playing ball, running up and down the stairs, reading a book, or calling a grandparent? You and your child can have fun writing down all the things he can do while he is waiting for the next Worry Time. He can also read the children’s book, Shrinking the Worry Monster, to learn ways to talk back to the worry on his own.
That’s it! Most parents find that this strategy seems hard at first, but that their child’s worries actually dissipate after time. After a few weeks, some kids actually have very few worries to report, but they want to continue special time with parents. If your child is very anxious, you might try scheduling Worry Time twice a day at the beginning. Of course, if your child is extremely anxious, please do talk to your health professional about getting outside help. Remember you don’t want your child’s anxiety to turn into a serious adult anxiety disorder.
Worry Time is a clever strategy that contains your child’s worries in time. When it is combined with a method to contain the worries in physical space like a Worry Box or a notebook, it is a very powerful anti-anxiety tool. And it is so easy that every parent may want to give it a try. This is such an anxious time for all of us, Having anxiety-reducing tools in our parenting skill set seems imperative.
Sally Baird, PhD is a retired child psychologist and co-author of a new book titled Shrinking the Worry Monster, A Kids’ Guide for Saying Goodbye to Worries. See her website at www.drsallyb.com. If your child has worries about COVID-19, you may want to read Dr. Sally’s blog on helping kids who worry about the pandemic, school, illness, and so much more!