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How I Helped My 8 Year Old Daughter Overcome Her Worry And Anxiety

My eldest daughter Natalia is a beautiful, kind, and loving soul. She is very confidant and a talented singer and actress with little fear of taking centre stage. Most of the time she is a happy, positive and inspiring girl but, just like most children, she can have times when she worries and becomes anxious.


Her biggest fears have always seemed to manifest the most around bedtime. When she was seven years old she developed fears about being the last one awake in the house. When my wife and I came to bed we would find Natalia sat up, wide-awake, in her bed. At first she wasn't overly anxious but she would ask us a series of questions - 'Are you going to bed now?' 'Do you think you will go to sleep quickly?' 'Are you going to read for a bit?' She was searching for something to cling on to that undermined her fears. This would then be followed by an hour and a half of her prowling the corridors upstairs, appearing at our bedroom door and checking to see if we were asleep yet. As the night wore on her anxiety would grow, until eventually she became hysterical, my wife would be exhausted, and I would have to talk my daughter down, which could take anything up to half an hour.


The first time this happened the process lasted over a week. We were all exhausted.


My own childhood and youth had been a curse of over-thinking and anxiety and had eventually culminated in a crippling depression in my late teens and early twenties. I have dedicated almost thirty years since then to equipping myself with the mental, and spiritual, tools to keep myself from experiencing such despair again.


Now though the pattern was seemingly repeating itself with my own daughter, I didn't know whether she was too young for me to pass on some of the tools I had taught myself, but we were all at breaking point and so there was nothing to lose.


I began talking to her one night about worries and what they were. I used the simplest of language for this. I tried to explain to her that worries were just thoughts and that thoughts were just things. Inevitably, because children have such wonderfully inquisitive minds, she asked me some pertinent questions and I was struggling to articulate the answers. I realised I needed an analogy that would explain this more visibly, and hopefully bring some clarity to what is essentially a subject matter that even most adults have very little understanding of.


At some point in my own learning I had heard a metaphor about the mind and thoughts being like the sky and the clouds. I don't know exactly where it came from that night but I began explaining it to her,


"Sweetheart, imagine your mind is like the blue sky. It's clear and beautiful. When you were very little you spent most of your time feeling like this big, enormous, blue sky - and it felt amazing. As you got a bit older and you understood a bit more stuff, then every so often you would notice there would sometimes be clouds in the sky. These clouds were just thoughts passing through the sky, just like the clouds do in the sky outside.



These thoughts could be something as simple as 'I want that toy' or 'I'm hungry'. The cloud would appear and what would happen is that you would notice that cloud and instantly forget about the blue sky. All that mattered was the cloud, the thought. So when you wanted that toy, or were hungry then you would believe that to be the only thing that was important at that moment. To make you believe that thought even more, Mummy or Daddy would usually get you that toy, or feed you. So now you would learn that when thoughts or clouds appeared, if you believed them or focussed on them you would either get what you wanted and be happy or sometimes not get what you wanted and be sad.


As you grew to be older and older you had more and more thoughts. The sky became cloudier and cloudier. You eventually forget that there was even a blue sky behind the clouds.

Everybody is exactly the same though sweetheart, it's not just you. Actually, most grown ups really struggle with this too because they forget that there is a clear blue sky behind all their cloudiness.


Remember when we‘be been on an aeroplane and we go up into the sky? When we head up into the thick, heavy, grey clouds it turns out they don't even really exist at all. They are just thin, wispy things that the aeroplane sails straight through, and even when the plane is in the middle of them there's nothing much there at all. Once you get through them and above them, all you can see is an enormous, clear, beautiful, blue sky.


So what we need to do is learn to realise that the clouds aren't really real, even when they look really heavy. There is always a blue sky behind them. Clouds are just layers and layers of nothingness on top of one another so that they appear to look really thick and heavy. Thoughts are exactly the same as this. Thoughts are little wispy things that float across our mind. You might have a little thought about what you are going to do tomorrow. Or a thought about some homework you have to do. Or a thought about a book you are reading. Or a thought about trying to get to sleep.


If you just allow thoughts to come and go they pass through you. Some of the really little wispy thoughts might pass through you really quickly."

I could see that she was understanding this concept because she was smiling now and much calmer, she yawned and so I continued briefly, not wanting to stimulate her further when she was clearly tiring.


"So when I ask you to think of a pink elephant, you can think of it, right?"


She nodded, and smiled.


"And now when I say think of a colourful beach ball, can you think of that now?"


She nodded again.


"So what happened to the pink elephant when you were thinking of the beach ball?"


"It went away" she said, giggling at the realisation.


"You see sweetheart, thoughts can come and go very quickly when we don't focus on them. So tonight I want you to try to just allow any of the thoughts that come, to just pass through you. Even if those thoughts feel quite heavy. I just want you to watch them and think of them like the pink elephant. Silly, funny things that come and go."


She yawned again and so I gave her a big cuddle and kissed her good night.


"See you in the morning sweetheart."


"See you in the morning daddy," she replied.


I went to bed satisfied that I had calmed her sufficiently but also concerned I had overwhelmed her with a concept that was far too great for an anxious, little, eight year old mind to comprehend.


The next morning though she was really excited. She had slept right through and was pleased with herself for using the tool I had taught her. She excitedly told me that she had lay in bed for about another twenty minutes after I had gone and she had watched her thoughts and let them just pass through without focussing on them. She didn't know when she had fallen asleep but she was woken up by me turning on her bedroom light in the morning.

I knew it wasn't going to be as simple as that though. That same evening as I came upstairs she was sat up in her bed again, not anxious but concerned nevertheless. I sat on her bed and reminded of the things we had discussed the night before. She nodded as she remembered them. I went over to her desk and got a pad of paper and a selection of coloured pencils. I quickly sketched a clear blue sky with a blue pencil, scratching it across the page using the wider side of the lead rather than the point.


"So there's the sky sweetheart. Clear and blue and awesome," I stated. I then drew a thin cloud with a light grey pencil. "This cloud is just a little thought, nothing too important. Maybe it's a thought about what to have for breakfast tomorrow. Can you see how thin and light it is?"


She nodded.


"Because it's just a little thought you don't give it too much attention and so it stays really light and it moves passed really quickly, just like the pink elephant last night."


I then started to draw a thick, heavy, large, dark cloud in the centre of the blue sky.


"Now this cloud is the thought you are having about not being able to sleep. It's big and it's black and it feels heavy and it blocks all the sky out. This heavy cloud makes you focus on it and give it attention and so it moves really, really, really slowly across the sky. So slowly in fact that it doesn't look like it's moving at all. But if you look closely you will see it is still moving, just very slowly. The reason it moves so slowly is because we give it lots of attention and because it is so big and it blocks the blue sky, we can't seem to see anything else. When we give it attention it is like colouring it in thicker and thicker."


As I said this I used the black pencil to draw the outline of the cloud over and over again, thicker and thicker, until it was a dark, black object taking up more than half the page.


She frowns now. She is feeling the heaviness of her own thoughts reflected in the dark cloud on the page.

"But the thing is sweetheart, it's still just a cloud. It's just a thought. And if you can remember that and not make it bad or make it wrong or give it too much attention, then you have to trust that it will pass eventually. That's what I want you to learn to do tonight. I want you to see all the clouds, both the light, fluffy, silly ones and also the dark and heavy ones. I want you to just watch them and remember they are just clouds, they are just thoughts. Soon enough you will see that they are moving, some of them faster than others, but they are all coming and going. Once you start to notice that, you might get a little glimpse of the blue sky again, every once in a while. Do you understand what I mean by all of this?"


She nodded and smiled, and then yawned and so I kissed her goodnight and switched her light off.


The next morning she was beaming and talking excitedly, "I did it Daddy. I saw the thoughts and I remembered to just let them come and go and not to think about them, and I felt calm, and then I woke up in the morning and I think I slept really well."


"Well done sweetheart, I'm so proud of you. You did so well. Now try and remember this idea of the clouds and the sky and how they are the same as your thoughts in your head. You can use this at any time, not just at bedtime. You can do it at school too. It will help you to realise that thoughts aren't real things, they can't hurt you unless you focus on them. When we focus on them we make them thicker and blacker like the big one I drew around on the paper last night. So the trick is to not draw around them by giving them energy and instead to let more and more of the clouds or thoughts just pass right through."


She smiled and nodded her head. I thought about all the profound information I had given in her in the last few days. I was still a bit concerned that it was too much for her eight year old mind to take in.


I need not have worried though.


Besides the fact that she fell asleep almost immediately from that point onwards, she gained great confidence in her own ability to work with her thoughts; something I didn't learn until I was in my mid twenties.


The best part came a week or so later though. I could hear a noise going on upstairs at about nine o clock one evening, when both the girls should have been in bed. I crept up the stairs and I could hear voices coming from my five year old daughters bedroom. As I got closer I could hear Natalia explaining the cloud analogy to her younger sister, Danya. She was explaining it in perfect detail too. As I popped my head discreetly around the door, I saw my eldest had a pad of paper in her hand and a selection of pencils. She was scribbling frantically on the pad, drawing a thick black cloud on top of the blue background she had already drawn. I coughed a little to let her know I was there, and with the inference that it was late and they should both be in bed. Natalia looked up.


"Oh hi daddy. Danya couldn't sleep so I was just explaining to her how to deal with her thoughts. I think she's fine now."


Danya lay back on the pillow and smiled, Natalia switched the bedside light off, gathered her paper and pencils and headed out the room and right back to her own room.


She slept like a baby.


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