By Jenna Del Valle, Ph.D.
Having a child struggle with anxiety can be hard to watch. And finding ways to help them cope and express their needs can be frustrating. What is anxiety? Anxiety is actually an important emotion as it alerts the brain and body to a possible threat to our survival and can trigger the flight or fight response. Anxiety is what saves our lives when we need to move out of the way from a speeding vehicle or what cautions us from walking through a dark abandoned alley at night. We need anxiety! But the key is to experience it in healthy and appropriate doses. When you are getting ready to take a test, introduce yourself to a new peer, or sit down to eat dinner with your family, anxiety has no place here because we usually are not under a potential physical threat. The problem then becomes a threat that is created in our mind by our thoughts, and further reinforced by our physical responses and behaviors. There is a lot we can learn about anxiety, and I would like to provide you with a couple ways to help empower your child to better understand their emotional and behavioral response to their worries.
The Worry Ladder: Help your child identify several things that trigger their worries. It can be between 5-15 things. Have them jot it down on a piece of paper in no particular order. Then create or print out a ladder and label the ladder in some fashion (e.g., 0-100 in increments of 10), with the lowest number placed at the bottom and the highest at the top. Then have your child write on the ladder where each worry belongs based on the labeled points. A hundred points is the most anxiety provoking trigger and zero is no anxiety. Then pick a couple items, usually toward the bottom levels of the ladder, and help your child find ways to lower that worry just little bit more, even if it’s only by one or two points. The ladder helps your child asses the difference between smaller and larger worries and encourages helpful ways to start addressing worries slowly (I bet I won’t Fret, 2008).
Nervous Mountain: Creating your own nervous mountain is a way to closely understand your thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions as it relates to one of your experiences. The idea is to pick a time or trigger that has caused worry, and then examine that experience by noticing how you become increasingly (climbing the mountain – phases 1, 2, and 3) and decreasingly (descending the mountain – phases 4 and 5) worried. Have your child draw a mountain and label it 1-5; number 3 should be placed at the peak of the mountain. The numbers represent different phases of your experience with number 3 indicating the most distressing part, and number 5 indicating the worry being over. During each numbered phase, have your child discuss what he/she feels and notices during that part of the worry, what their thoughts tell them, and where they may feel the worry in their body. It is helpful to point out that although unpleasant, worries will eventually go away. Nervous mountain is a great way to help your child understand how they experience and respond to a worry as it goes through each phase. This activity also creates a level of self-awareness (I bet I won’t Fret, 2008).
If you want more support with learning ways to help your child manage their anxiety then please contact Dr. Jenna Del Valle for information at email@example.com