Help Your Child Take Control of Worry Thoughts

October 15, 2021

Each time we avoid, we are saying to anxiety, “I believe you.” This makes it grow bigger.

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Years ago, I worked with a little boy who was terrified to separate from his mother. Even in their home, his mother could not go into another room (not even the bathroom!) to be alone. So many worry thoughts! Her son was extremely fearful, and she was beyond exhausted by it. After the first session with me, the little boy refused to come back to see me. He didn’t like me, and I had offended him somehow. The mother asked for referrals to another therapist, but I told her to try and give it a shot a little longer. I explained that sometimes children avoid going to therapy because it causes them anxiety to come and talk about their anxiety. The mother agreed, and we continued.

In the second meeting, we named his worry and talked about what his worries were telling him. After several questions, he began telling me that his worries told him that while he was in the office with me, his mother would leave and never return. We then used a worry thermometer to identify how worried he was that this would happen. On a scale of 0 (totally calm, no worry) to 10 (the worst anxiety he could imagine), he said he was at an 8, and it was hard to be in the office with me. I had his mother return, and we talked about his fears together. To his mother, this seemed like a silly fear that should easily be resolved. His mother adored him, and there was never any indication that she would leave. She didn’t understand how he could not be talked out of the worry by explaining that she wouldn’t leave and loved him dearly. If you have any experience with worry, you know it is often silly, out of proportion, and illogical. But it feels very real when our body responds with that adrenaline rush.

If your child is experiencing worry, the first step is to help them understand anxiety and talk back to it.

Validate and Normalize

If your child is anxious and worried, make sure to validate your child’s emotions. Tell them, “I see you’re worried or afraid right now. It’s ok; I get worried and afraid sometimes too.”  Through our blog, social media, and free resources, we talk all the time about how all emotions are allowed. We want you to communicate this to your child because the more your child tries to hide or control their emotions, the bigger they become in their lives. Everyone feels emotions, and that is ok. We just want our children to learn how to manage them so that worry thoughts do not end up controlling how they live their life.
Additionally, let your child know that worries are normal and something that everyone experiences. For instance, most children are afraid to get shots, sleep at a friend’s house for the first time, or be alone in a dark room. Fears can help protect us, and we need them. However, sometimes our worries get stuck in our brains, and they don’t want to go away. When that happens, there are some things that we can do to help.

Teach your Child How Worries Get Started and Stuck

The type of treatment that we use to help children understand and overcome worries is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy has been well-researched and is effective in helping both children and adults overcome anxiety.

In CBT, we learn that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all interact in a way that can either help us overcome anxiety or be trapped by it. As we learned a few weeks ago, when faced with a threat, our body goes into fight, run, or freeze mode. But sometimes, there is no actual threat; it is just a thought that a situation might be a threat.

For instance, in my example above, the boy thought that his mother would leave and never return. She wasn’t going to leave him, but the thought triggered fear and danger (feeling), which then triggered the desire to flee or escape (behavior). He told his mother he didn’t like me to avoid going to therapy and being separated from her. In this example, you can see how there can be a powerful and upsetting chain reaction of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Worry thoughts can be so tricky!

How Worry Feels

Ways your child may feel worry in their body

Help your child identify feelings that start in their body when the worry starts. This might be a headache, stomachache, feeling faint, tearing up or crying, sweating, trembling, dizziness, nausea, fast heartbeats, or difficulty standing. Let your child know that what they are experiencing is real and the feelings are very uncomfortable. It can be scary and feel awful. Because of how awful it feels, most children then “flee” situations to avoid those feelings.

For instance, the boy in my example avoided these feelings by always staying next to his mother. If she was apart from him, his worry that she would leave him came back, and the panic started. So to keep those anxious feelings away, he always stayed close to his mother. Though this made him comfortable in the short term, it made his anxiety grow stronger and stronger. We need to let our kids know that anxiety grows bigger and stronger in our lives through avoidance. Why? Because each time we avoid it, we are saying to anxiety, “I believe you.” The more we listen to it, the more it takes control. But we can make it go away by talking back to it and not listening to it.

Give Anxiety A Silly Name

Now that your child knows how anxiety got started and stuck, they need to learn how to control it. Sometimes anxiety can feel like it is who we are and a part of us. It takes control of our bodies so fast that it feels like it is us. We want our kids to feel like anxiety is not a part of them. It is no more a part of them than a temporary infection in their body. To do this, we like to have kids give their anxiety a name—the sillier, the better! The Stinky Bully, The Grouchy Monster, The Overreactor, Mr. Nag, etc. It’s not only fun to make it silly, but it also lightens the mood when talking about a subject that can feel scary and serious. Anxiety hates laughter and humor. It’s hard to feel worried when you are laughing, so have fun with this!

Talk Back to Anxiety

I like to introduce kids to anxiety and liken it to a bully. Most kids know of bullies through experiences, television shows, or books. Bullies are mean, bossy and often tell us things that aren’t true. Just because bullies are loud and scary doesn’t mean they are telling the truth. Anxiety is the same way. We must teach our children to be assertive and stand up to their anxiety bully. When talking to your child, use your chosen name and talk about it as if it is outside your child. In the example above, I might say, “What is Mr. Nag telling you will happen if Mom goes into another room? Do you believe Mr. Nag? Are there things that might tell you Mr. Nag is wrong?

As parents, we often want to reassure our kids. In the example I gave you, the mother often tried to tell her son, “I won’t leave you, and I love you.” Instead, we want you to communicate to your child that worries are not trusted and often lies. By asking questions, you can have your child use their language to talk back to their anxiety, which is far more effective than you giving them that language.


Trade reassurances for questions

Lastly, help your child separate feelings from facts with their worry thoughts. Their emotions are so intense at times it can make them feel that the thought must be real. Help them understand that their emotions and anxiety are not to be trusted.

To go back to our example above, the boy might think, “My mom is going to leave me and never come back.” You might say, “Is that what Mr. Nag tells you will happen?  What do you believe might actually happen?” The boy might say, “That is probably just Mr. Nag telling me lies. Mom has never left and has not come back. So I will probably be fine.” By focusing on the facts, the boy could see that it was very unlikely that his mother would leave and never come back for him, given that it never happened his whole life. This is a healthy way to deal with worry thoughts.

Be a Supportive Parent

Remember, helping your child develop this type of thinking and separate facts from feelings takes time. Be patient and understanding with their worry thoughts. If your child decides to enter a scary situation or demonstrates coping thoughts, praise your child and reward the coping behavior. Standing up to anxiety is hard work!

In a few weeks, we will continue the discussion on anxiety by making a plan to face your child’s worry thoughts. In the meantime, download our Free Relaxation Guide to teach your child skills to relax their body and unplug their body’s false alarm. As always, let us know if you have any questions. 

Have a wonderful week!


The contents of this site are opinions of The Childhood Collective PLLC partners unless otherwise noted. The information on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any type of medical condition and is not intended as personalized medical/psychological advice. Any decision you make regarding your and your family’s health and medical treatments should be made with a qualified healthcare provider. 

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  1. […] Seeing your child anxious can be one of the hardest things as a parent. It is hard because none of us like to see our children in pain, and we often don’t know the best way to respond or help. In our last blog post, we discussed ways to teach your child to talk back to anxiety. If you didn’t have a chance to read the blog, check it out here. […]

  2. […] in another post. In the meantime, check out some of our other posts on how to help your child with worry thoughts and behaviors and our Free Kids Relaxation […]

  3. […] I also love having kids give anxiety a silly name and teaching them to talk back to their anxiety. For instance, my daughter calls her anxiety her “Worry Bully”. Check out this post for more details on how to teach your child to talk back to their worries.    […]

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