Balanced Thinking - For Young Children

Anxious children spend more time than non-anxious children dealing with worry thoughts or messages that “pop up” frequently. These “pop ups” have them thinking about all the terrible things that could happen and the many ways they will be unable to cope. Examples include: 

  • “It’ll be awful.”  
  • “What if no-one wants to play with me?”
  • “Mum and dad might forget to come back?”
  •  “Something bad is gonna happen.” 
  • “I’m so dumb.”
  • “I’ll get sick and die.”
  • “That dog’s gonna bite me!”

As a parent or caregiver of a young worrier, 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 avoiding a range of opportunities, experiences, and events. In order to reduce your child’s vulnerability to these negative experiences, you can teach your child the concept of worry messages, also known as, “pop ups.” You can explain how s/he can catch and change worry “pop ups”, to produce new and helpful “pop ups”.


Step 1: Learning about “pop ups”

Many children are unaware that they are having anxious thoughts (also called messages). They simply think its normal to have these worry messages “pop up,” and they accept them as fact. Fortunately, you can help your child change this habit by teaching him/her about the concept of “pop up” brain messages. Begin by showing your child thought bubbles located above the heads of cartoon characters. Newspapers, comics, books, and the Internet offer a wealth of options. This can help demonstrate that all of us have words and ideas that “pop up” inside our heads.

Then you can explain that some of these “pop up” messages are helpful or unimportant.

A helpful “pop up” would be:

“Remember to bring my swim suit to the party”

And an unimportant “pop up” would be:

“I wonder what’s for dinner?”

For the helpful and unimportant “pop ups” we do not need to do anything. These messages are fine to float around our brain. However, tell your child it's the worry “pop ups” we need to catch and change. 

Note: Some young children may confuse thoughts with feelings. If this happens with your child, you can explain that a thought comes from your head, and a feeling comes from your heart.



Step 2: Catching “pop ups”

As a parent or caregiver, you can teach your child to become a “pop up” detective. A fun way to do this is the give your child a mini-notebook, or a few index cards, and have him/her write (or draw for pre-writers), the “pop up” messages. You can practice together beginning with neutral situations. For example, play catch with your child and then throw the ball fast and hard. Ask your child what message just “popped up.” Did s/he think, “Hey that's not fair!” or, “Oh no, duck!” Or surprise your child with a treat or unexpected fun activity. Once again, ask your child what message just “popped up.” You can also 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.


Step 3: Generate more helpful “pop ups”

Once you and your child agree worry “pop ups” are happening, the final step is to change this. Begin by listing out some of the common or typical worry “pop ups” your child is experiencing. Then together, ask some of these questions:

  • Has this happened before?
  • What is something that makes me feel good?
  • What would mum/dad/a friend say?
  • What can I do to help me?


Finally, take some new index cards and make replacement “pop ups” with simple, helpful statements such as:

“I have friends,”

“My teacher is kind.”

“Most dogs are friendly and kept on a leash”

“My parents always collect me”


Once you have a few new cards reflecting more helpful “pop ups,” decide with your child where to keep these. You can even make duplicate cards to go in multiple places such as a backpack, car, jacket pocket, etc.