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When faced with an anxious child, I taught her how to overcome her fear by using the angel and the devil.Tweet
When my daughter was a little girl, we discovered she had anxiety. Sadly, our family is riddled with it, so in some ways, it wasn’t exactly a surprise.
With that said, how do you help a second-grader deal with the fears produced by her angst? Firstly, my experience with having a little one who’s fighting her own inner battles is that it’s different for kids.
What makes dealing with anxiety in little ones different is the way in which we approach it. They are not adults. For example, when she started to experience fears of something bad happening to a loved one, I came up with this:
When I was growing up, my favourite cartoon characters, when weighing the consequences of an action, would often have an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Essentially, it came down to; “Which voice do I listen to”? (Ah, that inner devil, how many times have I fell victim to your bull!)
As I was trying to help my daughter work through the negative self scripts anxiety was feeding her, I would use this cartoon visual to help her start to understand anxiety. I explained that this devil is a troublemaker, not unlike that kid at school who’s always trying to get someone in trouble. Remember that kid? I sure do.
For all intents or purposes, anxiety is in fact a devious sort. It makes up stories that ruminate in our heads until the fear is too great. This factious fear is what keeps us up at night and stuck in our own heads.
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Lucky, my little girl was very familiar with this “the angel and the devil” shoulder example. So, it ended up being a great jumping-off point to help calm her mind.
First off, making her feel safe was the top priority, so I would reassure her that Daddy was there for her, tucking her back in at night and staying with her for a bit. While there, I let her explain to me what was going on.
Note: I rarely had any luck battling my anxious child. Simply fighting with her and putting her back to bed constantly wasn’t helpful. Sure, sometimes she stayed, but she simply stared at the ceiling most of the night. In my estimation, this wasn’t really getting to the root of the problem and therefore was not helping her.
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The devil and angel reference was perfect. Kids tend to be more visual (at least mine were) so this was easy for her to picture. Basically, I explained to her that the angel – the one always telling her what was true and was her authentic voice – and the devil, was the voice of anxiety.
Based on this, we would work through what was making her worried or scared – the devil and what the real voice was telling her, the angel.
An example of how I put this into practice was her fear of our house burning down – a fear she developed after I ran through the fire-escape plan with her and her brother. For her, this made the devil (anxiety) pop up out of nowhere. It would tell her that she was going to be trapped, that “your dad is far away on the floor above” etc. The devil was successful for a time, building in her mind the story of her demise.
Now, there’s a trick to all this. In order for the angel to be the winner, I had to help guide her voice. That went something like this; I would tell her that because daddy was a firefighter, he knew that houses didn’t catch fire all that often in our community. I would also ask her if she could recall a time when she remembered hearing of a house fire? She couldn’t recall. And lastly, I would walk her through the fire-safety plan, reinforcing that this plan would help keep her safe.
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This helped plant the seeds to help her, the angel, discredit the inner script of her anxious mind. It cultivated a rational argument and eventually, the devil would appear less and less, his pleas to have her believe his story, less impactful.
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The end result? She slept soundly and equally important, she was able to overcome her fear of her home catching fire. Even today, at thirteen, I still employ it. I think working with it over the years, applying it to her various anxiety-driven fears, has given her a safe place to land and some skills to help her stand alone. I am very proud of the resilient person she’s become…. Love you, kid.
We are the gentle guides in our children’s successful outcomes.Jonathan Arenburg.
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