My oldest, David, is a worrier. He worries about the strangest things, and his worries manifest most strongly at bedtime. Lots of kids worry about monsters under the bed (and we've had that one here too). But David manages to take things to a totally different level. Over the last few years, we've dealt with worries like:
Fear that he has touched two separate substances with his hands that, when combined, form some sort of poison that has infected him through later touching his food.
Fear that Mom has been abducted by aliens and replaced with a robot Mom that looks and acts exactly like the real Mom; and is, of course, lying when she insists she is the real Mom.
Fear that bad guys will climb through his second story window, in the front of the house, using a ladder, to go downstairs and steal things, hauling them back upstairs, through his second story window, and down the ladder again, waking him in the process.
Fear that he only maintains breathing, and therefore life, by sheer force of will and when he falls asleep his body will forget to breathe and he'll suffocate.
I could go on and on. It is really rather heartbreaking, and simultaneously maddening to deal with. The thing about a kid with anxiety, no matter what you tell them, they don't feel better. You can't "talk away" their worries, or tell them to "just calm down." They probably want to calm down, and really wish they could, but they are completely terrified and don't know what to do about it.
After struggling with this off and on for the last several years, I did what I tend to do when faced with a perplexing problem. I bought a book. I found What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. The reviews were good, so I figured we'd give it a shot.
If you have a child struggling with anxiety, I definitely recommend "What to Do When You Worry Too Much". It is an interactive workbook that you read and work through with your child. Right off the bat, David felt so much better when he realized, "I'm not the only kid who worries too much!" I assured him there are kids who face far bigger, and more frequent worries than he does. He was even amazed to learn that his Daddy used to be a big worrier as a child too. There's certainly something about realizing you have a shared experience that makes a challenge feel a lot less daunting.
Some of our big take-aways from working through this book:
Talking endlessly about worries makes them worse
Talking about the worries and answering the endless string of what we started to call "worry questions" doesn't help - it does the opposite. I couldn't figure out why he wanted to ask me, every single night, if monsters are real, if he's been poisoned, if he's going to stop breathing, etc. The answers didn't seem to do any good, because he'd continue worrying about the same things, no matter how much we reassured him. Talking about the worries and answering all his questions was like feeding them, making them grow in his mind. That was an eye opener for him as well, and has proven to be quite true. When we don't spend time talking about his worries (at bedtime), we don't feed them and make them worse.
"Scheduled" time to talk them over can be helpful
Giving the child a time to talk about their worries when they aren't in the grips of anxiety is helpful, as long as you don't allow worry questions at any other time. We had to go cold turkey with the worry questions at night, but after the first night passed and nothing terrible happened, he started to realize that his worries were more pronounced at bedtime, and talking about them during the day made them seem silly.
Kids can understand logic. One of the first things you learn to do in the book is "use logic." I find myself repeating that to David quite often. He'll ask about something that scared him, or some other elaborate scenario he's concocted, and I respond with, "What do you think? Use logic." He'll think it through, and realize that yes, every night he does continue breathing, therefore he has every reason to believe tonight will be no different (or whatever the case may be). It doesn't always work, but often logic is a good first line of defense when the irrational worries start to grow.
Kick out the worry bully
The book also likens worries to bullies that are mean and lie to make you scared. You can kick the worry bully out, stomp on it and make it leave. We've practiced talking back to the worry bully ("Be quiet! You're lying! I won't listen to you!"). We've pretended to flick it off his shoulder and stomp on it. There's something about making the worries something that is outside the child that can be kicked out that seems to be empowering.
The book goes into more detail, and has a lot more suggestions and techniques. It has taken some work, but David's bedtime worries have definitely begun to improve. If you have a child who worries a lot, something like this might be really helpful.