Anxiety is exhausting. I’ve spent many hours curled up with my crying daughter, trying my best to reassure her that the kids won’t laugh, or that her teacher won’t yell, or that a scrape on her arm is okay.
As an anxious person myself, I feel intense sympathy and a visceral desire to make it all better. I hate that she feels so worried, so often. For several years, I tried my best to reassure her using logic and facts. Later, I tried to use techniques such as labeling false thinking patterns and restructuring thoughts.
All these strategies helped in the short-term but after a few weeks, the anxiety would creep back.
One of the worst parts was that I found myself battling not only my daughter’s worries but also my own impatience. Answering the same question 30 times in a row makes me want to run screaming from the room — even when I know my daughter is legitimately struggling. I’m not proud of this, but I have snapped at her in frustration and helplessness.
I know I’m not alone.
Don't miss these resources for your anxious child
Join ParentMap in Seattle for our Every Child Summit, including three lectures from experts in anxiety treatment, autism advocacy and ADHD. Tickets on sale now.
In my search to find additional resources, I discovered that asking the same questions over and over is a specific pattern of anxiety called reassurance-seeking.
Current research shows that answering those questions (providing that reassurance) doesn’t help with the anxiety. In fact, it can actually cause anxiety to increase.
I’d seen that play out it my own life (I have a tendency to seek reassurance, too) and with my daughter. Sometimes I wouldn’t reassure her in exactly the right way and her anxiety would go through the roof. I could also see how constantly providing reassurance was undermining my daughter’s own ability to assess risk and solve problems.
But what option did I have? Most articles suggested that parents stop reassuring completely. My mama heart couldn’t take that. Yes, I wanted to teach her to assess risk and reassure herself but I wanted to do it in a gentler way — a way she could understand. I also wanted to be there for her and know what she was worried about.
So, I put on my professional hat (I’m a board-certified behavior analyst). I utilized what I knew about delaying urges (some research suggests that if you wait just 15 minutes, the urge will subside) and came up with what we call “Worry Time.”
What is Worry Time?
It’s simple: You and your child pick 15 minutes during the day to be a judgment-free, reassurance-giving, worry free-for-all. In our family, we picked the 15 minutes before bed.
During Worry Time, I am 100 percent patient and sympathetic. I am willing to reassure as many times as necessary. My daughter feels supported and loved while talking about everything she’s worried about.
But — and this is the important bit — when she brings up worries during the rest of the day, I simply and calmly tell her that “We can talk about it during Worry Time.”
In other words, I don’t reassure her outside of Worry Time.
In this way, I’m teach her to problem solve while offering the safety net of checking with me during Worry Time. I’m also helping her notice that if she rides out her anxiety, she’ll usually feel calmer in 15 minutes.
I do allow one exception to our "No Reassuring Outside of Worry Time” rule. If she develops a new worry, I’ll help talk her through it ONE time. We brainstorm solutions and I tell her everything will be okay ONE time. If she brings it up again, I gently remind her that we already talked about it and we can talk more during Worry Time.
Try it yourself
If you want to give Worry Time a go, try the same script I used with my daughter. First, I told her a story:
- Parent: I want to talk with you a little about your anxiety. Did you know that there is an old legend that says every person has two wolves fighting inside them? One is all your sadness, worry and anxiety. The other is all your happiness, joy and peace. Which one do you think is stronger and wins the battle?
- Child: I don’t know.
- Parent: The one you feed. And I think because I love you so much and want to help you, I have been inadvertently helping you feed your worry wolf by giving it too much attention. I want to try a new strategy that will feed your happy wolf instead. And hopefully, with time, that worry wolf will shrink back into a manageable puppy.
Depending on the age of your child, you could also let him purchase a new stuffed animal to be their "worry wolf."
Suggest to your child that when they're worried, they can tell the worry wolf their worries immediately and that the wolf will hold onto them until Worry Time when you can discuss them together.
Does it work?
At first, it was a hard adjustment for my daughter. Her anxiety increased a little because I had shifted her coping mechanism. But because we had Worry Time to connect and offer reassurance, she still felt loved and supported.
For me, the adjustment was easier. I no longer lost my patience during the day. I felt like I was giving her the tools she needed to cope on her own, all while maintaining my sanity and meeting her needs.
And my daughter is doing much better. In fact, most of the time she even turns down my offer of Worry Time.
A few weeks after starting the program, I knew we were on the right track. She brought up a worry and when I gently prompted her to save it for Worry Time, she stomped her foot and declared, “But if I wait until then, I won’t be worried about it anymore!”
I said nothing but inside, I did a victory dance.