April 14, 2022

DIY therapy for your child’s anxiety…. cause the therapists have too long a waitlist

Remember sourdough?

Early in the pandemic, legions of previously non-bakers started baking their own bread, cultivating sourdough starter with religious fervour – a DIY revelation. And now it’s time for DIY Act Two.

Post pandemic, as legions of experts – and our own experience – tell us, way too many kids are suffering from anxiety. Time away from their peers and in-person schooling cost them socially and academically; they feel appropriately anxious.  Many of them are manifesting this difficulty in a heart-breaking combo platter of social reticence and trouble falling asleep at bedtime.

Must we rush our children off to therapy? Is that possible? I reached out to a few child therapists, who all told me they get several calls a day from parents needing help, and they have no space in their caseload.

DIY therapy for sleep seems more daunting than sourdough, but it’s not so hard. Regular readers of this column will already be familiar with my counsel on listening (as opposed to talking). The simple tool of listening more than talking will stand you in good stead in this situation.

I’ve used the DIY technique for kids who are having trouble falling asleep with a few kids and they report finding it helpful. In my experience any child older than 7 can do this. Like sourdough, it requires a recipe. Find a quiet private space. Ask your child if they’d like help with those pesky thoughts that just won’t stop when they try to fall asleep. If they say no, respect it. If they say yes, follow the recipe:

  • Suggest getting a special box to decorate and put their “get-to-sleep” ideas in. Find or buy a box.
  • Reconvene in the private space with the box and your child’s chosen art supplies (paper, scissors, markers etc.)
  • Ask your child to decorate and label the box how they wish. This apparently trivial step is important because it empowers your child. Humans take better care of that which they own. Empowerment is the enemy of anxiety.
  • After the box is named and decorated, ask your child to think of a TV show or a movie they like. Ask if it might be helpful when they can’t fall asleep to replay it in their mind. Get them to grab a piece of paper and describe that task on the paper in words and/or pictures. Put the finished product in the box. Tell them it’s a tool for when the thoughts are too much.
  • Now ask them to make another tool to put in the box. It’s good to teach them the lingo of self-soothing. Ask: What is a place you love? Ask them to list everything they love about that place. Suggest they grab another piece of paper and write or draw that “tool” – listing everything they love about that special place.
  • Ask for a few more of their special places and turn the thinking about each special place into a relaxation tool in the box.
  • Conclude by reinforcing how cool it is that your child now has good tools to use when they can’t fall asleep, and what a great job they did creating those tools.

Some kids – specially those who hate art –  don’t like The Thought Box. For them, it may be helpful to use one of the many apps (some with bedtime stories) for kids who can’t fall asleep, or the relaxation exercises at the back of the book called What To Do When You Dread Your Bed. The book is also helpful in letting kids know that they’re not alone in this plight.

For kids whose anxiety focusses on friendship, asking them to try to make friends is scary – that thought provokes fear of rejection. After two years of social disruption, they could likely use a leg up. Reach out to their teacher and ask the teacher to facilitate friend-making by thinking about which kids in the class might be a possible friend, and put them together for projects etc. at every opportunity. Armed with that possible friend info, you might invite that family over for a family playtime or outing. Creating social situations for them gets past their fear of rejection. Don’t ask them if it’s ok. Act first and apologize later.

None of this is rocket science and nor is it mysterious. The silver lining of this DIY child therapy is all about tools: putting self-soothing relaxation tools in your child’s arsenal pays it forward – because the worry monster comes for all of us on occasion.

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