Anxiety is a common experience for children, yet they often do not have the words they need to talk about it. Activities that provide tactile and visual input can help children process their emotions. Here are four activities that will take your child(ren) through a series of steps to help them understand their anxiety, know what to do about it, and be motivated to persevere in overcoming their worries.
These activities can all be found in their original format in two books. The first book is What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D. The second book is Creative Coping Skills for Children: Emotional Support through Arts and Crafts Activities by Bonnie Thomas. The versions of these activities outlined below are modifications based on my real-life implementations. Conceptually these activities address the same targets, though the versions below apply my experience to improve their practical effectiveness. To learn more about the original formats of these activities, please obtain a copy of the books listed above. If you would like to purchase either book, they can be found on amazon.com.
The Story of the Tomato Plant:
First, I ask the child if they remember ever growing something. After we talk about their experience (or lack of), I transition into asking them if they have ever grown a tomato plant. Next, I take the child through the story of growing a tomato plant and have them draw each stage of its growth. We talk about the need for nutritious soil, water, light, attention, etc. The child draws each stage of growing the plant: the shoot that peeks through the soil, the stalk that grows, the flowering plant, the fruit bearing plant, etc. Talk about what type of tomato they grew. Was it a cherry tomato, Roma tomato, or a big, softball-sized tomato? At the end, I talk about how one little tomato seed, when nurtured, produces an overwhelming amount of fruit, and even invades areas of our life that it shouldn’t. The example in the book listed above is that they end up making tomato ice cream and tomato cookies to use up all the fruit their one tomato plant produced. You can come up with your own unconventional uses for tomatoes to make the dramatic effect relevant to your life. I explain to the child that planting a seed of worry is much like planting a tomato plant. A small amount of worry can grow so big it invades areas of our life, including places it is not helpful. Anxiety can help keep us safe if we are in a dangerous situation, though anxiety about everything is hurts us.
After completing the tomato plant story, it is time to identify the child’s specific worries. I use the worry pizza for this step. I help the child identify four things: “I worry a lot about this…”, “Sometimes I worry about this…”, “I worry a little about this….”, and “I never worry about this….”. It is important for children to see that even when they are worried there are things in their life they can feel secure about. They can have worries and feel safe at the same time. Recognizing what they can feel secure about begins to chip away at their worry.
I have turned the worry pizza into a craft project, which allows the activity to be scaled up or down depending on the developmental age of the child completing the task. If your child cannot read or write, you can talk about the headings and simply glue the pieces on the pizza to help the child visually see their worries and coping skills. If your child can write, you can have them write on the pieces before adhering them to the pizza. The directions are as follows:
1. Cut a circle out of construction paper that is approximately the same color as pizza dough. Use as much of the piece of construction paper as you can. Divide the “pizza” into four sections as if you cut the “pizza” into four slices.
2. Cut a piece of construction paper that represents crust on a pizza. On this “crust” write the following four headings for the “slices” of pizza: “I worry a lot about this…”, “Sometimes I worry about this…”, “I worry a little about this…”, and “I never worry about this…”.
3. Use a 1” circular hole punch on red or dark pink construction paper to make “peperoni”. Ask the child to write each of their responses to the first three “crust” headings (I worry a lot about this, Sometimes I worry about this, and I worry a little about this) on a separate circle and have them top their “pizza” with their “pepperoni” in the appropriate category. Each individual worry should have its own “peperoni” circle. The pepperoni can overlap if needed.
4. Use a 1” square hole punch on yellow and white paper to create cheese for the sections: I worry a lot about this, Sometimes I worry about this, and I worry a little about this. On each piece of “cheese” the child can write the coping skills that they would use for each section of the “pizza” and glue them to their “pizza” in the appropriate section. The “cheese” will be glued over the “peperoni”. If a child I am working with has difficulty identifying coping skills, or needs ideas for coping skills to try, I have a copy of a coping skills bingo game and let the child look through the accompanying cards for ideas.
5. For the fourth section (I never worry about this), use a 1” hole punch to cut construction paper in colors that represent fruit you would find on a dessert pizza. For example, peach for peaches, red for cherry, blue for blueberry, and a light tan or off-white for apple. Have the child write the things they do not worry about on their “fruit” pieces and glue them in the never worry section. Use slightly diluted white poster paint to drizzle over the “fruit” to represent the icing used for dessert pizza. You could even use brown 1” squares to make a chocolate dessert pizza.
This activity allows children to cognitively explore their worry while physically engaging with the topic (tactile learning). They can hang their “pizza” up where they can easily view it to remind themselves of the things they do not worry about and coping skills to use when they do worry. The “dessert pizza” section reminds them that in the midst of their worry there is security. I refer to this as the sweetness in the storm.
A wish fairy allows children to dream, which helps them with multiple skills. First, wishing helps them identify what they want. The discrepancy between what they want and what is happening can cause anxiety or worry in children. Second, wishing develops creativity, a crucial component to learning how to solve problems effectively. Third, wishing engenders hope and can balance out their worries. To make a wish fairy:
1. Use an old-fashioned clothes pin for the fairy’s body. Have the child decorate their fairy’s body.
2. Make the fairy’s wings. I found a pattern I like on Pinterest by searching for fairy wings. Have the child decorate their fairy’s wings, then ask them to write the things they wish for on the wings. Another way to construct wings is to have the child trace their hands and come up with one wish per finger/thumb. Cut out the handprints and glue them to the fairy’s body as if they were wings.
3. Allow the child the option to use embroidery thread, or other similar thread, for hair.
After the fairy is completed, talk to the child about how the fairy gives flight to their wishes. This engenders hope that they can conquer their worry.
Butterflies are a symbol of new beginnings. It is important to tie this activity back to the worry pizza’s coping skills, especially if the child wrote down any new coping skills they want to try. My butterfly activity is unique because it is used to encourage the use of coping skills as part of the new beginnings message.
1. Use an old-fashioned clothes pin as the body of the butterfly. Let the child decorate it.
2. I use a specific butterfly wing pattern I found on Pinterest for the butterfly wings since it allows me to give instructions to keep particular sections white so they can write in those sections at a later date.
3. Have the child decorate the outline of the wing and leave the inside white or at least able to be written on at a later time.
4. Glue the wings onto the clothes pin body.
5. If the child accidentally cuts off the antennae of a pattern you can glue on pipe cleaners instead.
Tell the child that butterflies represent new beginning, so every time they successfully use one of their coping skills from their worry pizza you would like them to write it on a section of the butterfly’s wings. That way the butterfly can help give their new, good choices wings to fly (and grow).