True story: Last week I saw a family from Brazil. The parents shared that their nine-year-old daughter thought she had “worms in her head.” As it turned out, they explained that this is simply an expression in Portuguese that describes a situation where you can’t get rid of bad thoughts. She was worried and couldn’t stop thinking about the safety of relatives back home.
Fear, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Realistic fears help protect us from harmful situations by telling us to avoid them. They keep us from getting hurt.
Lots of people, and especially children, have silly, irrational, unwanted fears that can be just as overwhelming as real fears. Most common for young kids are fears related to the dark, monsters, nightmares, etc. These are the kinds of fears we want to get rid of because they don’t help us in any way, and kids really need our help in doing this.
Since with silly fears there really is nothing to be afraid of, what we are really afraid of is what we are telling ourselves inside our heads. We are afraid of our own thoughts. As FDR once put it- “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Who Gives a Hoot? is a perfect song for this kind of challenge with kids at least 6 years old. (Another Happy Kids Song, Go Away Bad Thoughts is tailor-made for kids ages 3-6.) Use the following procedures:
- Play Who Gives a Hoot? a number of times so your child can learn the song, and have them sing or chant along with the chorus (same as the title.)
- The next set of steps helps kids learn how powerful their minds are in making them feel either good or bad. First, have them imagine that they are tasting a variety of different foods. Let them describe the quality and flavor of the foods, whether sweet, sour, etc. Then have them imagine tasting something sour or bitter. Help them to see how their thoughts have such a strong influence over how they feel. You might say, “You really have a powerful brain in your head, don’t you?”
- Now have your child name one of his/her specific fears. See if they can come up with a silly name for the fear. If not, they can merely call it a “bad thought.” Ask them if it is a thought that will help them to feel good and have a good day, or a bad day, etc.
- The next step is to empower your child with the idea that they can be the “boss” of their thoughts and fears. You are teaching them that they have thoughts but can also choose not to have them because they are a “big boy/girl”. Ask them “Who is in charge?” and they will most likely rise to the challenge and say “I am.” If they are familiar with the story about the “Three Little Pigs”, ask them if the little pigs want to let the wolf in when he knocks at the door. Help them to see how their bad thoughts are like that wolf, and that they don’t have to let them in.
- Now that the fearful or bad thought is something that seems more concrete and is separate from them, they can do something to get rid of it rather than listen to it and be afraid.
- Lots of kids like to take their bad thoughts and fight with them a bit. You can have them imagine that the thought is in a pillow and prod them with the pillow as they assert who the real “boss” is. Have them say, “I don’t like you, bad thought. I’m the boss of you. You get out of my head right now.” (In that fears elevate adrenaline in the blood system and that constructive emotional expression serves to reduce adrenaline, there is a physiological basis for the effectiveness of this method, as well.)
- Kids can be initially embarrassed by this pillow hitting procedure, and may need your help at showing them how to do it. Do it along with them. They’ll also tend to giggle a lot, but that’s fine because the laughter serves as yet another release
- After a number of trials with the pillow hitting, (for example, a half hour before going to bed at night,) what happens is that the process gets internalized and they’ll learn to tell their thoughts to go away inside their heads rather than having to hit a pillow each time.
- Be sure to praise your child for being so strong and becoming the boss of their thoughts.