Anxious children: break the cycle the Sherlock Holmes way
Playing a game of ‘detective’ can help your child move on from worrying too much
Taking action is the antidote to worry and rumination. Photograph: PhotoAlto/Laurence Mouton
A key feature of anxiety is worry and rumination. Anxious children and teenagers are often engaged in constant and frenetic mental activity of either worrying about “bad” things that might happen or ruminating about “bad” things that did happen.
These worries and ruminations are usually cyclical, negative and self-defeating. A child might repeatedly worry that they said the “wrong thing” in a social situation and then beat themselves up about this. Or a child might constantly visualise a negative outcome for future events, which will cause them to become debilitated by fear and then to avoid the event altogether.
This constant worrying can take over family life, with parents finding themselves engaged in daily conversations trying to reassure worrying children who make no progress.
In helping anxious children, the goal is to break their cycles of worry and rumination. In particular, you want to help them move on from spending all their time “in their head” and instead to take constructive action to address the sources of their worries. Taking action is the antidote to worry and rumination.
Setting up a daily ‘worry time’
One of the most useful tactics to tackling constant worry is to put a boundary around worry to keep it to defined times. When working with parents and children who are constantly talking about worries and problems, my suggestion is to set up a specific daily “worry time” for 15-30 minutes (sometimes positively named a “daily chat” or “problem-solving” time) when the parents will be available and totally present to listen and problem solve with their children.
However, at other times the parents will not engage in worry conversations and will gently redirect the children – “let’s talk about that after dinner for our daily chat as we agreed”.
If your child finds it hard to postpone the discussion – you can try to distract them or coach them in how to relax (we will cover some of these techniques in the next article). By keeping the worry conversation to an agreed daily time, you begin to limit its negative effects and it also gives you a specific time when you can put some real effort into problem-solving.
Becoming a solution detective
During the daily chat, the goal is to help the child move from emotional worrying to objective thinking and problem-solving. A metaphor I find very useful with children is to invite them to become a “detective” – you want them to take on the persona of a detective who is searching for clues to uncover a solution to their problems.
Becoming a detective is usually a good metaphor to start problem-solving: a good detective is usually unemotional and objective – they ask good questions and look at at the evidence before they decide what to do.
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You want your child to engage the analytical-thinking part of their brain and to keep their emotions in check. When working with children in a playful way, I sometimes find it useful to give them a detective notebook and even suggest they put on a detective hat to signify they are now problem-solving and looking for solutions (rather than worrying).
Three steps to problem-solving
When talking to children about the problems, there are a few important steps that are best followed in sequence:
1. Listen first: it is important to always first listen to your child’s worries and concerns before you begin to problem solve. It is really important that they have time to express what is on their mind, to get their worries off their chest and to be listened to.
Frequently, this is the hardest step, as often your child might be too young to tell you what is on their mind or an older child might be closed down and not able to express what is worrying them (such as in the situation of bullying or something they might feel embarrassed about).
In those situations you have to be very patient to help them talk. This might mean changing the time you talk such as picking a time when they are more relaxed, or how you talk such as going for a walk together or even by reading a relevant story book together. For lots of young children, this might mean guessing how they feel and responding in an understanding way – “Lots of children feel nervous, going somewhere new . . . that is okay”
2. Explore solutions: the next step to problem-solving is to explore potential solutions with your children. While with preschoolers you might have to do much of the work of problem-solving yourself, children from the age of four or even three, can begin to reflect on their own responses. It is always best if you encourage children to think out things for themselves.
Gentle questions are an effective way to do this such as “What could you do when feel nervous in school?” “Who could support you when this happens?” “What could you say/do if someone said something nasty to you?” Exploring past solutions when they have managed before can work particularly well. For example, “How did you manage on Tuesday when things went well? How did you cope then?”
3. Agree a plan: once you have come up with potential solutions, the goal then is to make a plan as what ones will be put into action. Good questions are, “What solution is the best one?” “Which one would leave you feeling the best?” “What can you try next week?” “What would you like me to do to help?” While there are of course situations where you have to take action yourself to help (such as talking to a teacher), it is generally best if you talk options through first with children.
Whatever you agree, make sure to talk again at the next daily chat see how they got on and to support them further.
Three tips for going forward
Set aside a regular time to problem solve and coach your child next week about the problems that might underpin their anxiety. Remember to:
1 Listen: get them to express how they think and feel first and be warm and understanding in response.
2. Encourage: them to come up with solutions themselves.
3. Agree a plan: together set a course of action and talk again.
For preschool children who are too young to talk problems through with you, set aside your own problem-solving time with a partner or by yourself when you think about what is happening for your child and make your own action plan.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. See www.solutiontalk.ie for further articles on anxiety and other issues as well as courses and books.
The fourth article in the six-part series is on 21st February, and will look at how parents can help their children manage their feelings of anxiety.