We are a family of worriers. Add that to the imagination of a 4-year-old and it is a recipe for disaster.
For a long time, I didn’t want to call LJ an anxious kid and risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that would doom him to a life of anxiety and self-doubt that would haunt him forever and would lead him to resent me … yeah, see what I mean. Worrying is in our DNA :)
But, knowing that both my partner and I deal with anxiety-I decided that we needed to take a proactive approach. We needed a tool that would allow us to talk about our worries AND help us process them.
So a few years ago, (while researching for a webinar on assistive technology for social-emotional development) I came across the Worry Eater.
Look at him. Adorable!
It quickly became and remains one of my favorite tools. The premise is simple: write down or draw your worry, feed it to the monster, and POOF your worry goes away. OK, it is not always THAT easy. But it does have some amazing powers, let’s explore just a few of the ways we use our worry eater.
The act of labeling our fear. Being able to name exactly what is making you feel bad is a BIG deal at any age, but especially as a child. The label can be a drawing, a written word, a poem, a story, a symbol, etc. Whatever represents the worry/anxiety. For my 4-year-old, this process is still done in partnership with me. Trying not to put words in his mouth, I attempt to help translate his feelings and give him options.
Example: “You seem to be talking a lot about monsters in your room. When you talk about them I see your eyes get big and I see your body unable to be still. I hear your voice talking fast. I wonder if you are feeling worried?” LJ says “Yes”. I say ,“Yes, you are feeling worried. Are you worried that monsters are real? Or are you worried about being alone tonight?” LJ says “Both. Maybe monsters are real and they come out when I am alone”. “That is a big worry. How about I write ‘Monsters are real’ on one piece and ‘Being Alone’ on another?” LJ nods.
Depending on the needs of your child, the labeling can be an opportunity to use art to explore feelings or to practice handwriting. For others, the added pressure to write/draw may be too much and may cause them to disengage from the activity.
The tactile feeling of putting our fears away. Most of us have felt the therapeutic power of ripping up and throwing away something that is of no longer beneficial. That is what the Worry Eater offers, the ability to purge bad feelings. After we name our worry, we go through the tangible act of feeding it to the creature and zipping the mouth closed. It can be a huge relief to get our worries outside of us!
Moving forward. Obviously the world of anxiety isn’t picture perfect and worries don’t really just disappear. So how do we wrap up the activity and not let our kids stay stuck? Depending on your child's age and needs, here are a few ideas:
“Worry Eater has taken your worry, so you can move on to X” for some kids and for small worries, this may be enough. Maybe all they really needed was help labeling the feeling and to put it away so they could move on to the next part of their day.
“Worry Eater has taken your worry, so now we can talk about it together” maybe it is the perfect time to have a discussion of the worry and let your child get all their feelings out and if appropriate make a plan for how to help them cope.
“Worry Eater has taken your worry so you can get some sleep, eat dinner, do your homework, calm down, etc. We can talk more about it in the morning.” sometimes worries come out at moments that are less than ideal for focused, engaged conversations. So use the Worry Eater to push pause so everyone can sleep, tasks can be completed, or unsafe behaviors can be soothed. Timing can be natural, like when you wake up, or you can set a timer.
There are many creative ways to use these little guys with kids of all ages and needs! If instead of a worrier, you have a child that gets fixated on certain topics you can also use Worry Eater to “hold onto” that interest so your child can talk about, or do something new. Again, you can use natural routines (Worry Eater will hold on to your thoughts about Trains until after we eat dinner) or you can set a timer (“Worry Eater will hold on to your thoughts about Dinosaurs while we play blocks for 15 mins. When the timer goes off, we can talk about Dinosaurs again”). The best part of a tool like this is that you and your child can decide how big of an impact it has. It could be used on a daily basis to get little worries out before bed or to as a breakfast time conversation starter. Or it can only come out for the biggest anxieties as a pivotal coping tool.*
I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on these! Do you already use a tool like this? Do you use it in unique way? Tell me about it in the comments or send me an email :)
If you are interested:
There are several different “creatures” and size options available on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2P6dl8l
As much as I love these little guys, I also love that the idea is easy to DIY if you want to try the ideas out before buying. Use a box, zippered bag, a garbage basket, etc. Throw on some googly eyes, maybe a few teeth, and DONE :)
*One footnote: I am not a clinician! I am a mom first and a former behavior therapist/assistive technology specialist second. The ideas I share should never replace any existing therapy methods. If your child has a mental health diagnosis please have a conversation with your child’s therapist, social worker, doctor, or IEP team for strategies specific to their needs.