Help for Little Worriers (Part 2) - Sleephaven Sleep Consultation: Helping Tired Families Sleep

Several months ago I shared an excellent article by Renee Jain, Life Coach, about how to understand and empathize with your little Worrier.  Here’s how I summarized some of her key pointers:

  1. Coach your child to stop and take some deep, slow breaths. If your child is younger than 3 years, help him to blow out some pretend candles.
  2. Voice what you see: “I can see that you’re scared.  That’s O.K.  We all feel scared sometimes.” A little bit of worry is O.K.
  3. Ask the question: are the worries really true?  Feelings are not the same as facts.
  4. Walk in your child’s slippers. Remember what it feels like to be afraid.  Let him know that you understand.
  5. Help your child picture a peaceful place. You can say, “Let’s pretend we’re going to a happy place together.  Where would you like to go?”  You can start by describing his happy place and invite him to add details.

This month, I would like to elaborate on several more strategies in managing anxiety that I gleaned from Renee’s session with the Gentle Sleep Coach Community.  Remember how Renee noted that worried thoughts can trigger the same body response as the actual experience?  It looks something like this:

  • worried thought
  • triggers the “worry alarm” (which is a false alarm)
  • fight/ flight/ freeze protective reactions are triggered
  • nowhere for energy to go
  • uncomfortable sensations and feelings erupt: sweating, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, trembling, muddled thoughts

Children may feel these uncomfortable sensations in their body, but have a hard time pinpointing exactly what is going on or why.  Here are several tools to help children manage what is going on inside.

Use Sensory Tools

Once the fight/ flight/ freeze reactions engage, it can be very difficult to reason with your child.  His “logical brain” is crippled.  This is the time to use calming sensory tools to short circuit the protective responses and help your child return to a “rest and collect” state. (You can read more about your “sensational” child here.)  You have likely used sensory tools without thinking when you wrapped your worrier in a bear hug and spoke quietly to him.  Begin to notice what kinds of touch, sounds, movement and visual spaces calm your child.  Here are some sensory activities that often help the little people I work with:

Controlled Breathing:  take slow, deep breaths.  Pretend to blow out candles.  Blow bubbles.  Sing together.  Pretend to “paint” the room by blowing colors.

Deep Touch:  wrap your child in a long hug.  Let him burrow under heavy pillows, sit in a beanbag chair or in a hammock swing.  Give him a stress ball to squeeze.

Sounds:  Lower the pitch and volume of your voice.  Shush slowly and repeatedly.  Hum or sing a gentle song.  Put on some quiet music.

Movement:  Rock or sway together or give him access to a rocking chair or swing where he controls the movement.  Let him “discharge” his worries through heavy work – activity that requires muscle work (pushing, pulling, climbing, lifting, squeezing, sweeping, shoveling snow).

Contained Space:  use a tent or large box to create a comforting “womb space” for your child to collect himself.  Dim the lights.

Put a “Face” to His Worry

Help your child externalize (get feelings from the inside to the outside) and personify his worry.  Create a Worry Character that represents his worry feelings (i.e. a worry bug, a worry bear, or a worry doll).  Having an object to look at can help your child describe feelings that are swirling on the inside and it may be easier to talk about what Worry Bear is going through rather than disclosing those feelings as his own.

Be a “Thought Detective”

Worried thoughts are notoriously inaccurate, and a worrier’s responses are usually out of proportion to the problem.  Ask the question, “Is this thought really true?”  Collect the evidence.  Help your child write or draw out his answers.  In other words, kick start his logical brain to take over from his emotional brain.

Stay in the Present

Anxiety is triggered far more by past thoughts and worries about the future rather than when your child remains focused on what is happening now.  Help him stay in the present (often referred to as “mindfulness”) and move from “what if to “what is.  Engage his senses and ask him to describe what he …

  • smells
  • sees
  • hears
  • tastes
  • feels (through his touch receptors)

Practise “being in the moment” when your child is not anxious, so that he can draw on his “what is” skills when worries strike.

Contain the Worries

We can’t eliminate all worry, and some degree of tension can push us to be more attentive and productive.  But we can exercise some control over when we worry.  I know this sounds rather funny, but set aside time to worry by creating a “Worry Session”.  Having a designated time to set worries loose can keep worry from taking over every moment of the day and give a sense of control.  Make it a creative time.  Have your child draw or write down his worries.  Decorate a worry box to contain worried thoughts.  Set the timer (no more than 15 minutes) and end the Worry Session with a gratitude thought – something your child is thankful for, or something that went well during his day.

In addition to – or instead of – a Worry Session, you may choose to place a Worry Box with a pad of paper/ pencil next to his bed so he can leave the worries aside while he sleeps.

Get Help When Needed

As I mentioned in my first blog, if your child’s quality of life is impacted and he limits what he is willing to do because of anxiety, be sure and consult a mental health professional skilled in working with children.  Begin by discussing your concerns with a trusted health provider.  Request a referral to a children’s mental health clinic in your area.

Here are some good options in the Edmonton region:

Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health (CASA): 780-342-2701

Elmtree Clinic: 780-904-3781

Equipping your child with healthy strategies to help him cope with big feelings can go a long way towards a good night’s sleep.  And when he is rested, he can handle the challenges of learning and growing so much better!

Margot Byer
Sleephaven Sleep Consultation
Helping Tired Families Sleep
…. In Edmonton, Alberta and Beyond