Evicting the Boogy Man:
Teaching Children how to Quiet Anxious Thoughts
Does the boogie man lurk in your child’s closet? Does your child shrink in large groups? Would your child rather eat worms than take tests? If so, you are not alone. A lot of kids experience worry, fear and anxiety.
Dr. Agnes Meyo, a licensed psychologist specializing in the testing of gifted children, says that “worry, anxiety and fear are common, yet often quiet monsters that have significant negative effects on a child’s academic achievement, social and emotional functioning and self-esteem.”
But according to Dr. Meyo, there are ways parents and teachers can help kids overcome their fears and “slay the monster” of anxiety.
The Brain Connection
The sensations of fear originate in a section of our brain called the amygdala. When a threat is perceived, the amygdala sends out messages for the body to release adrenaline—the substance that causes our bodies to prepare to either fight or run away. But the threats children face can’t always be fought or avoided. When a child experiences a surge of anxiety in the classroom before a test she may begin to sweat, feel sick to her stomach, experience dizziness, blurred vision, faintness and even a sense of being detached from her environment—all symptoms that in themselves can be frightening.
“Once children begin to feel this way, their worry increases. They start to wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” Dr. Meyo said. “With this frightening thought, they shoot out even more adrenaline. They say, ‘Oh my gosh, my heart is pounding,’ ‘Oh my gosh, my hands are sweaty!’”
At that point, the train of anxiety is now speeding out of control.
“It’s Just a Little Monster…”
Dr. Meyo demystifies anxiety by helping kids understand that the sensations they are experiencing are normal—that their bodies are just doing their job.
“We want to normalize it so they don’t move on to ‘What’s wrong with me?’” She then empowers them by telling them that “it’s just a little monster, and you can slay the monster!”
Often all kids need to calm down and slay the monster is to understand why their hands are sweating and their heart is pounding and learn that it is something they can control.
“Slaying the Monster”
Dr. Meyo teaches children three tried and true strategies for decreasing fear responses or, as she puts it, “slaying the monster” of anxiety:
1. Mindfulness: focusing on the present.
Anxiety is often created by thinking about what might happen in the future, “What if I fail this test,” “What if I have cancer,” “What if my parents divorce.” The mindfulness strategy teaches children to keep their attention on what is currently happening around them. “Focusing on breathing works really well in bringing you back to the present moment,” Dr. Meyo said. She teaches children to focus on their belly button to get in touch with their breathing: “Feel it going in to the count of three and out to the count of four. This helps distract from scary thoughts until the adrenaline can return to normal.”
2. Cognitive: what you think determines how you feel.
Children learn to recognize frightening thoughts as false, fueled by adrenaline. She recommends thought stopping strategies—literally teaching children to say “Stop!” when they begin having negative, fear-producing thoughts and switching to positive self talk. “’I think I can!’ can replace and modify negative thoughts,” Dr. Meyo said.
3. Behavioral Rehearsal: practicing what is feared until it is no longer threatening.
“It’s okay to give anxious children a reward for doing the thing they fear,” Dr. Meyo said. “Sometimes if you can just get them to do it once [through offering a reward], it’s all over.” If a child is afraid of dogs, you might have him practice petting a stuffed dog then reward him for moving on to petting a neighbor’s dog.
When the Monster Looms Too Large
Dr. Meyo admits that in some cases the above-listed strategies aren’t enough, and medication or counseling are needed.
“When the quality of the anxiety is intense and the quantity is daily,” it is time to seek further help.
“Sometimes children need to go on medication long enough to cut the connection between the fear stimulus and the physical reaction,” she said.
“Once you’re not afraid of something anymore, you usually don’t become afraid again,” Dr. Meyo explained.
This article was originally published in October 2010 and was updated in July 2020