All children, and in fact all people, experience anxiety at one time or another. Anxiety can be helpful, especially when it reminds us to be productive or on time. In fact, some anxiety can be important for everyday functioning, and even for survival. However, anxiety can also be unhelpful—for example, when it sticks around and begins to have more of a negative impact on functioning than a positive one. Some children experience physical symptoms associated with anxiety in certain situations, or they may avoid some experiences altogether, potentially missing out on some of the really great things that life has to offer. Sometimes, it can be hard to know how to deal with anxiety, as different situations call for different responses.
With children returning to school at this time of year, let’s consider the anxiety that many children experience when returning to school, or starting at a new school. There may be new people, new schedules, unfamiliar environments and rules, as well as challenging new material to learn. A small amount of anxiety might help children and their families prepare for the demands of school life. Reviewing schedules and routines, preparing materials, or maybe even visiting a new school or class might offer practical help to children at this time of year. In this way the child is utilizing practical strategies such as problem-solving, creating a step-by-step plan, rehearsing, etc. to prepare to tackle new experiences.
But what about when a child’s imagination steps in and magnifies their worries by causing them to imagine the scariest possible scenarios, even when those scenarios are highly unlikely? Some typical scenarios that may play out in a child’s imagination may include their teacher and classmates being mean to them, or their parents dropping them off and never coming back, or a tragic event occurring while they are at school. While we cannot assure kids that nothing bad will ever happen, we can encourage them to take all the practical steps they can in order to feel as safe as possible, before helping them to harness the power of their imaginations to work for them, instead of against them.
One way that we encourage children to do this is by having the first child imagine, and draw or write about, the scary scene that exists in their mind – for example, a child may draw a picture of him/herself sitting alone outside their school late at night after their parents did not return to pick them up. Next, the child would be invited to draw or write about a new scene, which would include all of the things they might imagine to help them feel safer – for instance, they might include another person in the scene who encourages a feeling of security. As an example, this could even be a favorite superhero who stays by their side and protects them from any dangers they may imagine until their parents arrive. It’s important to remind children that it is their imagination at work here, and they can use it to imagine whatever they wish – they can become the director of the movie in their mind! But, as with all things, this may take some practice.
It is important for children to become familiar with their anxiety so they can know how best to manage it and gain a sense of comfort with it. Therefore, children can benefit from building their sense of self-awareness, and from learning to be mindful of their experiences. With increased awareness, children can begin to feel more prepared to utilize practical solutions when necessary, to practice relaxation and coping techniques when appropriate, and to identify and challenge any negative, unhelpful thoughts that worry may provoke, so they can feel empowered to stand up to that worry—all while harnessing the power of their imagination to aid them throughout the process.
For more information on how to help children take charge of fears and worries, check out The Anxiety Workbook for Kids.
Happy reading, and may your imagination always serve you well!