Riley has been under a lot of stress lately. Although she had a wonderful year last year, she’s finding it difficult to transition to her new preschool classroom. It’s a little bigger, has a few more kids, and doesn’t include her favorite teacher. As a result, she’s waking at night and experiencing some other symptoms of anxiety as well (headaches and stomach aches). While she leaves the house happy and confident, she always says, “Mommy, my heart is beating too fast” as soon as we approach the school. It’s breaking my heart.
Last night I decided to do one of my favorite therapeutic interventions for kids that I first came up with eleven years ago while working in a school.
The Worry Box.
Young children lack the cognitive ability to effectively cope with stress independently, but they do respond well to concrete strategies to put their stress away.
The Worry Box helps children put their worries in a special place (where parents can keep the worries for them) so that they can be relieved of those worries at night (or during the day).
Like adults, young children tend to do most of their worrying at night. They are busy and active during the day, but when the lights go down the mind can wander and the stress starts to creep in. This can lead to difficulty falling asleep and nightmares, which can lead to frequent night wakings.
By using the Worry Box at night, children have a chance to verbalize and put away their worries so that they can get a restful sleep. Sometimes young children just need to know that someone else will take on their worries for them when life becomes stressful. This simple strategy will give your child the chance to put away their worries at night and sleep a little easier.
Create the box: Any small box will do, there’s no need to buy something new for this project. Have your child paint or decorate the box as she pleases. When your child decorates it independently, she takes ownership of the box and it becomes her special place.
Talk about it: Explain to your child that this is a special place where she can put away her worries each night, and that you will take care of those worries for her each night. Let your child choose a place in your room where you can keep the box safe each night while she sleeps. Letting your child make this decision helps your child gain some control over her worries. She knows exactly where they are while she sleeps. Riley wants her box on top of my dresser at night, but I’ve had clients hide them deep in linen closets and under couches. The box should not be kept in the child’s room, as that is her safe space.
Put away the worries: Find five minutes each night (preferably before the bedtime story) where you and your child can discuss her worries from the day. Older kids can write their own, but parents should write one worry per piece of paper (great use for those extra post-it notes) as your child describes them. Proceed slowly. Allow your child to place each worry in the box before you write the next one down. After you’ve written down the worries for the night, help your child place the box in the identified safe place. As she settles into sleep, remind her that you will keep her worries safe so that she can be worry-free at night.
The Worry Box works well for children ages 3-12, but has even been used with high school students!
Having a child who worries does not mean your child is on the road to an anxiety disorder. We live in a stressed out world, and children internalize the stress around them while trying to cope with their own triggers. Sometimes simple strategies can relieve them of some of this stress.
I have used this strategy with children of all ages, but some older kids prefer a more grown up approach.
A strategy is only useful to a child if he or she believes in it. For older children who feel that they are beyond the Worry Box, I often move on to something a little more geared toward tweens and teens.
The Worry Journal.
Again, this is a simple strategy that can make a big difference.
Have your child choose and decorate a journal. Give them some ownership; don’t force the decorating thing (you know your child best).
Each night have them write down their top three worries (or sources of stress) for the day, followed by three good things that happened.
The three good things can be as small as enjoying a favorite song on the way home from school or eating a particularly tasty apple. The point is to get out the stress and then find some good to ease them to sleep. The great thing about this is that kids can do this independently, which gives them some control over their anxious thoughts.
I’m happy to report that Riley had an excellent night of sleep following her first night with the Worry Box, and she’s already looking forward to using it again tonight.
**Both of these strategies work effectively when used consistently. If you can’t find 5-10 minutes per night to do this, then it might not be right for you.
How do you help your child put away worries?