Using the worry time technique to help children

The summer holidays are over and schools across the country have opened their doors to all children for the first time since lockdown began in March.

Georgina, our Children and Young People’s Therapist, talks you through the ‘worry time technique’ and how using it may well provide them and you with the emotional support that’s needed:

During this unsettled period of time it is natural for children to be experiencing more anxious thoughts or worries than usual. You may also find that your child is needing more emotional support due to the prolonged reduction in their usual support network and activities that support wellbeing.

It is natural for anyone right now to be experiencing anxious thoughts and worries, so do not panic if your child is experiencing this. Anxious thoughts do have their place in helping to keep us safe from danger. However, if these appear to be consuming and upsetting your child, then scheduling in set times for your child to explore their worries can help them to gain more control of these thoughts without diminishing or escalating them. This is called the worry time technique.

Start with yourself

It is important to understand your own emotional reaction to the current national health crisis, what feelings has it induced in yourself? I would invite you to spend some time reflecting on this, perhaps create a picture of how you feel or scribble down some words. Something we have probably all recommended a child or friend to do, but how often do you take the time to do this yourself?

Through externalising our emotions into something tangible that you can look at provides us with a degree of separation from our emotions, which can support us to feel less overwhelmed and have a clearer understanding of what we are experiencing. This can also be achieved through writing down your thoughts and reflecting on your response to the current pandemic. This may support you to feel more aware and in control of your feelings, which will support you to support your child.

Children will look up to adults as their secure base, where they need a secure and safe relationship with their primary caregiver in order to feel safe and secure themselves. As a parent one of the bigger influences you will have on your child is through being a role model. They will look to others to learn how to manage their emotions.

I would like to invite you to explore these writing prompts:

  • How do I usually respond to change?
  • How do I manage my anxiety?
  • What do I need to hear to feel reassured?

Once we have a better understanding of our emotional response to the pandemic then we are better equipped and have made space for us to help support a child’s responses.

Talking to children about the Coronavirus

Although we have been living with Coronavirus for the past few months children returning to school may ignite further worry in your child. You may be feeling unsure about how to have conversations with children about the Coronavirus, especially in a way that is reassuring and reduces worry.

It is important to consider the child’s age and level of understanding before doing this. Because there is an air of uncertainty at this time regarding how long we may be socially distancing for, it is important that we do not make assumptions or false promises that may make a child feel even more uncertain in the long term.

It has therefore been recommended to try to stick to facts when we are communicating with children about the pandemic, this is especially important for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

What is the worry time technique?

Worry time is a technique that can be used to help anxious and worried children postpone or set aside their worries until a designated time and place. Explore with your child when might be a good time to schedule in worry time, a time when you are both free from distractions and are able to relax or play afterwards would be suggestable and to avoid before bedtime.

The length and how often you meet for worry time should be decided on what you feel is best for the child. Ask yourself what you feel is an acceptable amount of time to spend on worrying thoughts? It may be a few times a week or just once a week. The length of worry time will depend on your child’s age, but I would suggest between 20 to 40 minutes.

Try as much as you can to provide different options and choices for the setting up of worry time, exploring where they might like to physically have this time will help them to feel more control and independence which are necessary ingredients for helping them to feel secure at this time.

Preparing for worry time

One of the benefits of having a designated worry time is that when we notice an anxious thought, instead of delving into it when it might not be the appropriate time, we can instead say ‘I will come back to that worry or thought later when I have scheduled worry time’.

This is a cognitive behavioural therapy technique to help control intrusive thoughts and worries. It can also be helpful to encourage the child to write down their worries and thoughts when they come up and then let them bring this to worry time.

You can be as creative as you like with this, some children may enjoy writing them down on little slips and having a special box or place to keep these, or they may have a worry monster that can keep the thoughts safe. This will support them to keep externalising their thoughts in a safe and contained way.

You may need to further support your child to refocus after they have written down their worry, relaxation exercises such as counted breaths and drawing their attention to the here and now through mindfulness exercises can support this.

Exploring worries during worry time

Once you’ve got the right environment and time set with the child the next part is providing a nurturing environment where they feel comfortable to explore their worries. Remember that the aim here is to ensure that the child can talk freely about the worries they may have noted down during the week.

It may be that some of these worries no longer concern them anymore, which is fine, ask them what they may like to do with the note; keep it, scrunch it up, or change it. What is important during worry time is that you listen to the child non-judgingly and encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings. You may find it helpful to prepare some coping strategies with the child during worry time and encourage them to think which coping strategy they may like to use.

Coping strategies to try during worry time:

  • Create your own coping strategy flash cards with different activities they find relaxing (colouring, deep breathes, cuddle etc).
  • Physically representing the worry through drawing, then inviting them to think what they may like to change about the picture.
  • Asking a child to describe where the feeling is felt in their body (tummy, heart) and how it feels.
  • Grounding techniques: explore what they can they see, smell, hear, touch and taste.

Ending worry time

The need for structure and routine is something you have probably heard endlessly about by now, but this is no different when it comes to worry time. After months of being in quarantine feelings of lack of control and loss are likely present. The sudden impact of this on children who likely did not have the chance for closure or goodbyes can be very triggering for a child particularly children that may have already experienced feelings of loss and abandonment.

Agreeing and sticking to the set time limit for worry time will help to contain the anxieties and reduce it becoming overwhelming. When it is approaching the end of worry time, check if there is anything else on their mind that they want to talk about or write down for another time. Then think about how you may say goodbye to these worries for now, do they want to rip up or change their worries, pretend to put them to bed or send the worries somewhere.

Having a clear and consistent way of ending worry time will help to keep the worries contained and ensure they feel ready to move on from worry time.

The NSPCC and Child Mind Institute can provide more information on talking to children about the coronavirus.

If you want to find out more about coping strategies you can take a look at the following:

If you would like to explore further how to support your child at this time please follow Broxtowe Women’s Project’s social media sites on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.