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7 Ways to Help Your Anxious Child

8.27.13

When children are afraid about the unknown (new school, new grade, new house, etc), how do you handle it?  Do you reassure them and say, “it’ll be okay, don’t worry about it” or do you try to help them process their thoughts and feelings?  Our children need to know we understand how they feel.  Don’t try to fix the worry or dismiss it; instead, validate their feelings and empathize with them.  Here are additional ideas to help you with this process.

1.  Read: “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to get your child thinking about caterpillars and butterflies.

2.   Invite your child to draw a caterpillar, a cocoon, and a butterfly.

3.  The other day I was helping one of my young clients with her fears.  I decided to use my caterpillar/butterfly puppet to talk about changes.  Then I told her the following story.  Share it with your child.

Charlie the Worried Caterpillar

By Annabella Hagen

Once upon a time, there was a caterpillar whose name was Charlie.  Charlie was a smart caterpillar, but he worried a lot.  His teacher at caterpillar school told him he would soon be in a cocoon, and he would have to wait for a few days before becoming a butterfly.  His teacher said:  “It may be a little dark at first, but while you are getting used to it, remember the good times you’ve had with your friends.  Before you know it, you’ll be a colorful butterfly!”

Charlie was worried.  He didn’t want to be in a cocoon.  He had loved being a caterpillar.  He wanted to keep things the same“I don’t want to be in a cocoon, what if I don’t get used to the dark!  What if I never come out!”  He cried and cried until he fell asleep.  When he woke up, it was very dark and he stood still.  He blinked and blinked.  He was afraid because he couldn’t see a thing.  He remembered his teacher’s words:  “It may be a little dark at first, but while you are getting used to it, remember the good times you’ve had with your friends.  Before you know it, you’ll be a colorful butterfly!”

Charlie decided to be brave.  Before he knew it, he could see inside the cocoon and felt just a little bit better about being in the cocoon.

Days went by and he got used to his cocoon, but his worries came back.  He thought, What if I turn out to be a moth instead of a butterfly?  What if the garden is gone because is winter time?  What if I don’t learn how to fly?  I don’t know what will happen!  My cocoon is warm and comfy.  I don’t want to change!  I want to stay here!  I’m scared, and I don’t like feeling this way!”

Charlie was so scared he had forgotten his teacher’s words:  “Before you know it, you’ll become a colorful butterfly!”  He couldn’t remember anything.  His little brain wasn’t working because he was too afraid.  He began to cry and fell asleep.

When he woke up, he noticed his cocoon had a crack and he could see the light outside.  He tried to get out even though he was afraid.  He decided to be brave when he remembered his teacher’s words:  “Charlie, you can do hard things!”  He worked hard to get out but then found himself hanging down off his cocoon.  He worried again!

This time he thought:  “What if my wings don’t dry like they are supposed to?  What if I cannot fly?”  He worried, but then he remembered his teacher’s words,  “Charlie, sometimes when we feel scared, we think bad things could happen, but if we notice something interesting around us, our fears start to go away.”  He decided to feel the wind on its body and imagine what it would be like to fly all over the garden.

Suddenly, he fell off the tree branch.  For a second, he thought he couldn’t fly.  He began to flap his wings as fast as he could.  He noticed that he really could fly!  He saw the beautiful flowers and noticed other butterflies.  He decided to join them.  He smiled and said, “I did it!  I was afraid, but now I’m brave.  I can do hard things!”

4.  Invite your child to imagine what would it be like if he was a butterfly.  Pretend you both are butterflies flying around a garden.  Fantasize with your child and talk about the things you would see, smell, hear, and sense.

5.  Talk about your child’s specific worry and problem solve together.  Teach your child to do the following skills, which were presented at a recent Utah Association for Play Therapy workshop:

6.  Butterfly Hug (This intervention was developed by Lucina Artigas for working with survivors of Hurricane Paulina in Acapulco, Mexico, 1997)

  • Cross your arms over your chest so that the tip of your fingers from each hand touch the area between the clavicle and the shoulder.  Eyes can be closed or partially closed looking toward the tip of the nose.
  • Alternate the movement of your hands, simulating the flapping wings of a butterfly.
  • Breath slowly and deeply, observing what is going through your mind and body without changing, repressing, or judging, as if what you are observing are like clouds passing by.
  • This exercise may be continued for as long as the individual wishes.

 7.  Jin Shin Jyutsu Technique

  • Thumb:  Anxiety – If you feel anxious, hold your thumb with your other hand and breathe deeply and slowly.
  • Adaptation:  Move your fingers as if they were butterfly wings before holding your thumb.

Make sure that your child has fun as you do these activities.  Remember that feelings, even anxious feelings are temporary.  Enjoy your children and make sure you let them know every day how much you love them.

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