Helping Children Deal with Anxiety: The Worry-Eater

Childhood anxiety is all too common in today’s world. Parents often ask me for concrete, practical ideas to help school-age children deal with worries. One of the tools I sometimes use in therapy with children is to create a “Worry-Eater.” To try it at home, tell your child that you have a great idea that will help take the power away from his worries.

Let him know that although the worries seem very powerful and difficult to get rid of, it is possible to gain control over the worries. Since children often doubt their own ability to manage the worries at first, ask your child to think of what kind of animal/monster/creature would be able to help him gain control over his worries. Ask your child to think about what his Worry-Eater would look like, what its name would be, and what kind of powers it might have. Once he has thought about the kind of Worry-Eater that could help him get rid of the worries, ask him to draw it. Be sure to have him add detail to the drawing and to really flesh out and describe the Worry-Eater’s powers.

Once the Worry-Eater is created, attach a big envelope or folder (anything that can hold pieces of paper) to the back of the drawing. Your child and you will then write down one of your child’s worries. For instance, your child might write, “I am worried I might get sick”, “I am worried about my test tomorrow”, or “I am nervous about this weekend’s sleepover.” Once the worry is written down, ask your child to “feed” his worry to the Worry-Eater (i.e., put it in the envelope/folder). Then help your child think about what the Worry-Eater will do to get rid of the worry.

In addition to “eating it up”, this might include using coping skills such as coming up with positive, encouraging thoughts, challenging the worry, and/or distracting oneself with pleasurable activities. This active and creative process of creating and using a Worry-Eater helps children feel more in control of their worries and builds important coping skills. Moving forward, your child can write down and have the Worry-Eater eat his worries on a daily basis (or as needed).

Praise your child when he gives worries to the Worry-Eater and if he brings up thos worries again later, gently remind him that the worry is gone because the Worry-Eater has already eaten it. With practice, your child will soon learn that he does not have to be bothered by worries any longer.

If your child has significant anxiety that is not responsive to your attempts to help him control it, it may be helpful to seek a short-term course of individual therapy with a professional who has expertise in childhood anxiety.

Kelly H. Theis, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist