Anxious children spend more time than non-anxious children stuck in the tumble dryer of their minds, thinking about all the terrible things that could happen and the many ways they will be unable to cope. These thoughts range from simple self-talk statements, to lengthy dialogues full of terrifying images and catastrophic predictions. For example:
- “I’ll fail the test.”
- “What if I can’t do it?”
- “What if mum and dad forget to come back?”
- “They don’t like me.”
- “I’m so stupid.”
- “I’ll get sick and die.”
- “That dog’s gonna bite me!”
"I’m sure I failed that quiz. This means the test will be extra hard and I’ll probably fail that too. Oh no- my GPA will drop! With a low GPA it’s gonna to be harder to get into the high school I want. A bad high school means I might not get into a good college, or even any college. I’m doomed! I’ll have to work at Subway for the rest of my life. Who will want to marry me? I might not even be able to afford to live on my own. I’ll have to live in my parent’s basement forever."
As a parent or caregiver of an anxious child, it’s easy to understand why this way of thinking isn't helpful. Such thoughts lead to anxiety and fear, which in turn may result in your child or teen avoiding a range of opportunities, experiences, and events. In order to reduce your youth’s vulnerability towards avoiding, we need to help him/her feel less anxious. One way to do this is to teach your child to change the way the tumble dryer mind operates. The first step in this process is to help your child recognize that they have a tendency to get stuck in the tumble dryer in the first place. Then together you can determine whether or not your child’s thoughts are valid or helpful. Finally, if they are neither valid nor helpful, you can teach your child to change his/her thinking patterns to become more balanced. In the next section, you can watch video clips outlining how to explain all 3 steps to your child in more detail. You can also read about creative ideas to teach each step in a fun and engaging way. For teenagers, you can use the same tumble dryer analogy and explanations in the video clips, or you can review the teen site section Thinking Right with your teen, and learn about identifying and changing anxious thinking.
Step 1: Recognizing the tumble dryer effect
Some youth are unaware that they are having anxious thoughts (also called messages). For those who are aware, they may not view these thoughts/messages as problematic. Therefore, it is important to come to an agreement that anxious thoughts are tumbling about in your child’s mind. You can begin by having a simple conversation with your child as demonstrated in the following video clip. Some youth prefer to have a quiet time to talk face to face, while others prefer to discuss such topics when simultaneously engaged in an activity, to reduce the feeling of being in the spot light. For younger children, you may need to begin by teaching what is a thought? The activities outlined below will assist with this process.
Creative Ideas & Tips
- To teach what is a thought? begin by showing your child thought bubbles located above the heads of cartoon characters. This can be an easy way to demonstrate that all of us have words and ideas that “bubble up” inside our heads. However, some young children may confuse thoughts with feelings. One way to describe the difference is to explain that a thought comes from your head, and a feeling comes from your heart.
- Next, look through picture books or magazines and guess what people might be thinking. Or watch a video clip on mute, and pause the picture approximately every 10-20 seconds to guess people’s thoughts. You can then listen to the clip afterwards and see how close you were with your interpretation.
- Go to your library or buy a local newspaper, and choose some comics to read. Graphic novels work well also. You can even photocopy comic strips, whiteout the thought and speech bubbles, and then write in your own versions of what the characters might be thinking. Artistic kids may want to make their own comic strip.
- Once your child understands the concept of thoughts, you can have fun with the Time Machine game. Explain to your child that you are going to capture some of his/her personal worry thoughts by inventing a time machine. In this pretend machine, you will travel into the past and the future to observe situations that might make your child worry. You can have fun drawing, painting or building a time machine. Then ask your child to remember or predict situations that might create some worry messages. What are these? For example, “Imagine you go to Marcy’s house and her dog growls at you. What message would your brain send?”
Note: For young children, Step 1 may be as far as you can progress. Even if your child cannot capture worry thoughts, don’t push it; this will come with time. For those who can, identifying their thoughts is a big step in a long-term plan to help fight anxiety. One way to get your child to continue to pay attention to anxious thoughts, is to use an actual stop sign as a visual reminder to “STOP and pay attention.” You can then teach him/her to blow away the fear thought using a belly breath as discussed in Calm Breathing, and refocus his/her attention on something fun. You can also make replacement thought bubbles with simple, helpful statements such as: “I have friends,” or “My teacher is kind.” See Cognitive Coping Cards for more ideas.
Step 2: Evaluating the truth behind tumble dryer thoughts
Once you and your child agree anxious thoughts are present, the next step is to test out whether these thoughts are true. Keep in mind that most anxious children overestimate the likelihood of danger or catastrophe and underestimate their ability to cope. Much of the time you and your child will be observing worry’s tendency to overestimate, but on occasion bad or upsetting things do happen to youth. These moments provide an opportunity to evaluate worry’s habit of underestimating your youth’s coping. Fortunately, both situations allow you and your child to identify that worry is often wrong. You might even take it one step further and label worry as a liar or trickster.
Creative Ideas & Tips
- Until now, your child may have believed all tumble dryer messages. In this step you can encourage your child to start to challenge these messages. Give your child a stack of index cards and have him/her write out any of the statements and questions below, 1 per card. Then, when a worry message bubbles up, have your child use some of the statements to evaluate the fear message. This is also outlined in the Cognitive Coping Cards section.
- Has this ever happened before? If so, what happened and how did I cope?
- What would a friend say to me?
- What would I say to a friend?
- What would (insert name of someone your child looks up to) say?
- What is the worst thing that would happen? How would I handle it?
- What is the best thing that can happen?
- Think of 5 possibilities. Which is most probable (likely)?
- Horror or Hassle? Ask your child to take a piece of paper and draw 3 columns. At the top of the left hand side column write out, “Worry Message.” In the middle column write, “Horror?” In the right hand column write “Hassle?” Each time your child captures a worry thought, encourage him/her to write it down in the left hand column, and then place a check mark in either the column marked horror or the one marked hassle. What trend do you notice? Are the worries usually the worst horrors, or are they mostly hassles? Horror or Hassle worksheet.
- As in the above exercise, create 3 columns with the following 3 titles: “Worry Message,” “Bothers me
- …0-10,” and “Will bother me
- …0-10.” Each time your child captures a worry thought, encourage him/her to write it down in the left hand column and then rate from 0-10 how much this thought is worrying your child now, versus later in a few months time.
- The final skill involves encouraging your child to become a worry detective. Explain to him/her that in the past s/he might have believed all messages that tumbled around in the dryer. However, now your child can become a detective to search for clues about whether the messages are the truth or lies. Help your youth create the following chart:
I have this hunch (Write out the worry message):
Here’s the evidence to support my hunch (list some clues of what I saw, thought or has happened before)
Here’s the evidence that doesn’t support my hunch (list some clues of what I saw, thought or has not happened before, or any false leads…unhelpful types of thoughts)
Putting the clues together (Is my hunch correct? Or is there another more helpful way to think about this?)
I Have This Hunch (worksheet)
Step 3: Developing more helpful and realistic appraisals
The third and final step will be to teach your child how to replace these anxious thoughts with more realistic, balanced statements. Much of the hard work has been done in step 2. In step 3 you and your youth will work together, to create a new and more balanced set of thoughts that will replace the old tumble dryer thoughts.
Creative Ideas & Tips
- After evaluating his/her worry messages, your child may begin to notice that what s/he once thought of as very likely to happen turns out to be very unlikely to happen. Making a record of this can help your child to remember these more realistic outcomes. Be as creative and practical as you want in recording these new, more balanced thoughts. If your child frequently uses a tablet or mobile device, s/he can create a file to list old versus new thoughts. A simple 2 column format would work. Alternatively, you can make a fun collage to represent the more realistic appraisals your child is developing.
- Using the Horror or Hassle and Now or Later activities above as your guide, you and your child can design a bracelet, key chain or phone cover depicting those key words. The words will be a useful and easy-to-see prompt, when tumble dryer messages occur.
- Calendars can be a helpful way for your child to record fear messages that fail to occur. Each day anxiety sends a fear message that fails to come true, have your child place a sticker. After a while the calendar will be filled with stickers, highlighting that worry is overestimating catastrophic outcomes.
- Check out the Cognitive Coping Card section for additional creative ideas to encourage increased use of more balanced thinking.