Anxious 10-Year-Old

 
Dear Power Tools:
 
My 10 year old daughter seems very anxious about something, but she won't discuss. She had a difficult time at school last year, and I suspect it has something to do with that. Can you recommend any ways to help her get past this?
 
RK
 
 
Dear RK:
 
Sorry to hear about your daughter's anxiety. It is very normal for children to have anxiety over unknowns, especially if they have previous unpleasant experiences in similar circumstances. Additionally, many children do not like any changes or surprises, and you should warn them before expecting a transition to a new activity (i.e., "In 10 minutes we need to go home, so start cleaning up in 5 minutes."). Just the fact that there are unknown potential challenges can unhinge many people.
 
Really there are two issues here. One is how to get your child to discuss their concerns, so you can address them; the other is to prepare your child for a new experience (current and in the future), like a new teacher, so they are less likely to build up the anxiety in the first place.
 
Because this is a common problem among my client/families, I invented a game for one of them that can address both issues. I call it the "Solution Game." This is one of those games that are best played in a nonchalant way, such as waiting in a long line, on an evening walk or waiting for dinner to cook. The game involves imagining potential different ways of handling stressful challenges. First you make up a vignette of what "awful" thing has happened (after the first one, take turns, if your child is willing). Then you take turns trying to think of solutions to the problem suggested. The goal is to think of as many possible actions and/or solutions as you both can. Whoever runs out of solution ideas to the given situation gets a letter of the word "SOLUTION;" the loser is the one who finishes the word (as in the game "ghost").
 
Here's an example: You forget your lunch and Mom drops you at school before you notice. Solution: "I'd tell my teacher;" "I'd go to the office to phone home;" "I'd ask if anyone can spare a piece of fruit from their lunch;" "I'd always have money in my pocket, just in case something like this happens so I can buy a snack;" or "I'd try to imagine Mom remembering until she actually does." Obviously, there are endless possibilities for solutions, including very silly ones like contacting aliens. It's more fun if there are some far-fetched solutions. It is especially funny if both are offering very serious suggestions, and suddenly the parent says something off the wall. When the child laughs, the parent admits that they ran out of ideas; they gracefully accept the next letter, and move on to a new vignette. You don't have to evaluate the merit of solutions because the primary goal of the game is to give the child confidence that there are many ways to solve concerns, and that he or she is capable imagining them. If later presented with this problem in reality (or even imagining and worrying about it), he or she will evaluate a solution based on her needs and comfort level.
 
There are two secondary goals to this game. One is that, the child might feel comfortable bringing up the real source of their anxiety by suggesting it as a vignette. The other is that it builds up a repertoire of real solutions to problems by placing them in the child's conscious and unconscious mind. What is more empowering than having a stable of solutions to problems that never even happened? Often, this is enough to reduce the anxiety, and if not, it can be the start of the conversation around it. But, the normal caveat applies--if there is extreme anxiety, and it impacts the child's ability to function, you should get help from a qualified therapist who has experience with children and their emotional problems.
 
Best wishes,
Linda Powers Leviton, MA MFT
Power Tools