When I hear from adults who live with anxiety, many say that the only thing that helps is not trying to get rid of the anxiety completely, but learning to accept that it's going to hang around, maybe forever. They begin to see it as just a thing, neither good nor bad. On a recent episode of The Hilarious World of Depression podcast, one guest said she deals with her anxiety by naming it "Steve" and then imagining Steve as this dumb friend who shows up once in a while. So whenever her anxiety acts out, she can say, "Oh, Steve. Cut it out."
And yet when children have crippling fears - say, of dogs, germs or talking to new people - adults often tell them, "Stop it, don't be afraid," which not only makes them more anxious, but also feel like they're disappointing those around them by being anxious. Just like adults, they need to learn how to live with their anxiety, rather than in fear of their fears. They can benefit from giving their worries a nickname, too.
Anxiety in adolescents is on the rise, reports the New York Times. It is now the most common reason university students request counselling services, and numerous surveys indicate that kids in high school and university are feeling overburdened and overwhelmed. Hospital admissions for suicide attempts in the US have doubled in the last decade, and Times describes in-patient facilities for severely anxious teens.
It's actually a tool used by therapists, including Bridget Flynn Walker, a clinical psychologist who specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat children with anxiety disorders. "When a kid has anxiety, it can feel like his or her brain is highjacked for a while by worry, sort of like when a horse takes off galloping with his or her rider when they are not supposed to," says Walker, who writes about the strategy in her new book Anxiety Relief for Kids. "Nicknaming fosters a little objectivity in what can feel like a very scary moment. It's like saying to yourself, 'I know what you are doing, brain.'"
Here's how to help your child nickname the fears that won't go away:
Understand the anxious brain. Your child very likely knows, intellectually, that her worry is extreme or even completely irrational, but as long as her amygdala is activated - the part of the brain that gives us that jolt of panic - that intellectual understanding is dissolved. So instead of trying to talk the child out of feeling anxious, it's more effective to offer a technique to face the fear. That's where the nickname comes in.
Ask your child to come up with a nickname. Walker writes that the nickname should be "lighthearted, and not frightening or negative". A child who's afraid of germs might name the fear "Germ Worm", she explains.
Practise using it. The goal is to have the child simply greet the fear when it comes around, according to Walker. "You don't want her to think things such as Go away, Germ Worm! or I hate you, Germ Worm! or You suck, Germ Worm!" she writes. "The idea is to remain objective, without adding more negative thoughts." You want the greeting become a natural response, and that takes some practise. Role play different scenarios by pretending to be the worry. Walker plays this game with her patients. She'll say something like, "John, if you touch this shopping cart, you'll get germs on you!" And then John will respond by saying, "Hi, Germ Worm!" Later on, your child can greet her worry silently in her head.
Prod when necessary. If you see your child becoming anxious, Walker writes that you can ask, in a calm voice, "Is that Germ Worm?" Your kid might get annoyed and say "No!" - at that point, don't try to convince her otherwise. You've gotten the idea into her head, and she can sort the rest out herself.
Realise that this is a long-term tool. Some kids may worry that nicknaming a fear will make them think about the fear even more. Walker writes that it might, at least at first. Cognitive behavioural therapy, which is said to be the most helpful form of therapy for treating anxiety in children, requires for kids to move closer to a fear. And that is hard. But as they become more comfortable with it, as they learn to accept it as just one thing in their great big lives, the less power it will have over them.