Give Worry a Name

14 Jul


Give Worry a Name



It is common for adults who struggle with anxiety to make a comment such as, “I know it is weird but…” with reference to their anxious habit. They know on some level that it doesn’t make sense, if for no other reason than knowing that others don’t share their concerns. The more entrenched the anxious habit, the harder it is to hold on to this insight. And for children, the ability to recognize that their anxious habits do not make sense is one that develops over time as they grow out of the magical thinking of childhood and develop more realistic thinking. But this discrepancy probably also reflects the underlying neurobiology of anxiety in that one part of the brain that can analyze the situation and see it doesn’t make sense, but another part of overrides it with the intense fear and dread it produces. Personifying anxiety, giving anxiety a name, can be an extremely useful tool in capturing this reality and providing a tool to get some distance from the problem.


So with your child,  a  basic starting point may be  to give the anxiety a name such as “The worry monster,” “Mr. Perfect”, “Mr. What If, or “Brain Bug,” but it is preferable if possible that the child come up with his own name. This helps separate the child from the problem and taps into a natural tendency of children to personify things. But it is also a helpful way of talking about a problem, that the “worry center of their brain,” something outside of conscious awareness, is sending a lot of “junk mail.” It is sending a lot of false alarms and tricking the child into thinking there is problem. It is good to embellish this idea as much as possible by drawing a picture of it. Then rather than just responding to your child’s anxious questions, you can respond compassionately with, “That sounds like another brain bug question, this guy just doesn’t stop, how annoying is that?” Then later we can begin to make the “Brain Bug” wait for an answer rather than responding to it right away. “Brain Bugs” tends to be very impatient creatures that love a great deal of attention and if not responded to right away, they will often get bored and walk away.


Some children, particularly as they move into the middle-school years, may feel that giving anxiety a name is silly and immature. There are also children with hoarding tendencies who tend to overpersonify objects and consequently this strategy would be more complicated. So perhaps for those children, a more matter-of-fact label would be more appropriate. “OCD” or “Anxiety” might be more acceptable along with a more adult-level discussion of the problem. The goal of personifying is have a tool that will have the child not immediately act on her anxious impulse, but rather activating a pause button so that a more thoughtful response can occur. Overall, giving anxiety a name has proven to be an extremely useful and also fun first step in dealing your child’s worries.

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