4 Activities to Help Your Child Talk about Their Anxiety

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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.

Worry Pizza:

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.

Wish Fairy:

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.

Butterfly Instructions:

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).

 

 

6 Steps to Helping Your Child Control Their Anger

I often work with children who struggle with anger.  When I am working in a group setting, we construct the components of my Anger Menu as a group, then I send the kids home with the assignment to complete an Anger Menu specific to them with their parent/guardian.  It is good for the kids to see the different ways their peers struggle with anger so they understand they are not alone.  It is also good for them to see the different ways that their peers control their anger and invest in self-care.  Seeing what their peers are doing on the solution side of the equation helps them become more creative in the ways they problem-solve or prevent their own anger.  The kids are able to learn from each other rather than feel adults are constantly nagging them.  I, of course, ensure the suggestions are ethical, healthy, and legal.

My Anger Menu is a modification of the Anger Menu activity utilized by Angela M. Cavett, Ph.D, RPT-S.  The menu I designed is conceptually based on Dr. Cavett’s though it is executed differently.  I designed a menu template that is a tri-folded piece of standard printer paper with a menu-inspired layout.  The menu has six headings that help you walk your child through the process of identifying their anger patterns, how to calm themselves down, who to enlist help from when needed, and how to prevent getting angry in the first place.  These headings are: Smoldering Starters, Fiery Sauces, Entrees, Cool Treats, Soothing Sippers, and Antacids.  Let your child/children decorate the front of the menu without judgement as long as it meets the above criteria: ethical, healthy, and legal.

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Here is what should go under each heading:

Smoldering Starters: What triggers you to become angry or irritable?  For example, a tone of voice, unexpected assignment, being behind in schoolwork after being sick, someone takes something of yours (classmate, sibling, parent, neighbor, etc.), poor lighting, too much noise.

Fiery Sauces: What is the catalysts to full blown anger or rage?  What takes you from irritable to rage?  For example, someone continues to tap on you, person does not give you your item back after asking nicely, someone threatens to take away a privilege/item/activity, you receive a bad grade on an exam after being sick, being teased on the playground, losing a game, feeling rejected, someone cuts in line, etc.

Entrées:  Things you do when you are in a full-blown rage.  For example, punch a wall, thrown furniture or other objects, hurt another person (student, teacher, sibling, parent, etc.), hurt yourself, sweep everything off of a desk or other piece of furniture, etc.

Cool Treats: What calms down your anger?  What things help stop your anger?  For example, taking deep breaths, taking a time out, a fidget toy, walking around, exercising, listening to music, drawing, etc.

Soothing Sippers: What can you do every day to lengthen the time between a smoldering starter and an entrée?  What self-care activities can you do that build up your emotional resilience so you do not become angry so easily?  For example, yoga before and after school, read something you enjoy, play fewer video games, give yourself quiet time before and/or after school, listen to positive/happy music, draw, journal, develop a positive hobby, etc.

Antacids:  Who can you call on to help you when your anger becomes so strong you cannot stop being angry on your own?  Who is another person who can help you calm down if you cannot calm yourself down?  Who can you call on to help you problem-solve?  As is sometimes the case with the foods we eat, anger can become so strong we need outside help to neutralize our anger.

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7 Ways Easter Inspired Me to Teach Self-Regulation

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Did you and your kids dye Easter Eggs this month?  At my house, coloring eggs took a detour.  As a mother who has been homeschooling on the side since the preschool days, I am continually developing the skill of integrating fun with a lesson…..all under the radar. I hope.  Our Easter traditions were no exception this year.

Many times I have been left staring at the left over egg dye feeling like there should be more I could do with it.  Every year I dump the left over dye down the drain, feeling hollow and wishing I could be one of those cool moms who has a use for everything.  This year was my year to be the cool mom!  Well, for Easter anyway….

Recently, I was talking to another mom about that infamous activity where you dye the white flower.  As part of our conversation I had pulled out my book of 365 Days of Science experiments from Usborne.  It talked about all the different ways you could expand the concept using other items.  As I looked at the left-over dye this year I remembered our conversation…..and an idea was birthed!  We were coloring our eggs outside, so I ran straight into the house and grabbed the white rice!  I spooned the white rice into each container of dye.

You need to let the rice soak for at least one hour to ensure the dye is fully absorbed into it.  Then, we used a metal strainer lined with paper towels (or a disposable shop cloth, or several real cloths that you don’t care about if you want to be environmentally friendly) to drain the water off the rice.  Do not rinse!  After a fair amount of water had been drained (towel was soaked) we transferred it to a new paper towel on a surface that would not stain.  I used a baking dish.  You could use disposable plates that are super absorbent if you wanted.  Being outside allowed the rice to dry in a few hours.  If you do this inside, you might need to let the rice dry at least overnight, or maybe even wait 24 hours if you did not get most of the water off.  After the rice is dry, you can store in separate containers by color or mix it all together to make confetti. See the second lesson below before mixing the colors together.

Self-Regulation Lessons from the Process:

Several lessons in self-regulation are taught simply through the process of making the rice.  Children must first listen to the instructions and follow through on them over a significant span of time.  Second, children must focus on using their fine motor skills to prevent a mess.  Depending on the age of the child or children completing this activity they many need several reminders at each step in the process.  If a child completing the activity specifically struggles with fine motor skills and listening, make sure you kneel to their level and make good eye contact.  Ask for understanding and repeat the instructions if needed.  This needs to be a positive experience.  If the child struggles to comprehend the instructions, verbally reinforce that you want to make sure they understand what you are saying so they can have lots of fun.  Letting a child know you want them to have fun can be a good motivator for listening well.  Last, they must learn to be patient in waiting for their results and learn that not every good thing is instantaneous.

Self-Regulation of 7 Different Emotions Lesson:

Once your rice is dry and sorted into containers you are ready to have a hands-on activity for teaching emotional regulation.  I use 8-ounce mason jars to store my rice.  I made half a cup of seven different colors: black, blue, green, pink, purple, red, and yellow.  The glass mason jars and quantity help all the kids in my therapy groups see the activity clearly.  At home, you may not need so much.  A quarter of a cup may be sufficient since you can all sit around the same, smaller table.

Next, I take a story that mentions several emotions.  My current favorite is The Terrible Thing that Happened.  As I read the story to the kids, I put one scoop of each rice emotion into a repurposed spaghetti sauce jar or a larger mason jar.  Black is for fear. Blue is for sad. Green is for calm (or sickness if the story calls for it). Pink is for love. Purple is for worry. Red is for anger. Yellow is for happy.  By the end of the story the repurposed jar is filled with several different colors.  I make sure to mix it up really well.  Then I talk with the kids about the experience.  After they have time to give me their interpretation of the lesson, I make sure to transition into a discussion about how sometimes we can feel several emotions at the same time and that it can be confusing when they are all mixed up.

Next, I read The Color Monster book, which talks about how we can separate out our emotions and, ironically, put them into different jars.  I ask the kids to look at the jar and tell me if they think they could separate out all the emotions we put into the jar.  After I give them a chance to share their thoughts I make sure we have covered a conversation on how difficult it can be to separate our emotions sometimes, reinforcing that it is possible though if we use our coping skills.  Typically, I have already completed a lesson on coping skills with my groups, or someone else has if we are working in teams.  If you need suggestions for coping skills you can start with deep breathing, taking a break, listening to music, reading, take a nap, journaling, etc.  Something that tends to be more unique to my coping skills set for children is doing activities that help kids naturally put pressure on their joints, such as jumping jacks, jumping with a two foot take off, hopping on one foot, push-ups, pull-ups, climbing stairs, or simply short distance sprints.

I would demonstrate that you can separate out the emotions.  Do not give yourself a headache though!  After you have demonstrated with a small amount of rice, leave the rest as confetti or combine all of it to make a sensory activity that could be used as an activity to help your child or children calm down when they are feeling intense emotion.  Many times it is soothing to simply run your hand through a container of rice while you think about what you are feeling or the situation upseting you.

Happy crafting and teaching!

Modifications:  If you do not want to use rice then you can use appropriate colored poms, beads, painted bean bag filler, actually confetti paper in the appropriate colors (hole punch your own colored paper as a fine motor activity for your kids), etc.  For the core of my lesson plan I did not use Easter egg dye.  Instead, I used your standard food dye to make the custom colors I wanted.