We like to think of childhood as a time of carefree wonder and imagination. Days filled with running through fields, looking under rocks, climbing trees and experiencing new things with anticipation and curiosity. For some children these same activities are not met with joy but with anxiety and fear. Anxious children are often intelligent, sensitive and creative. These are the good qualities that can overcome the anxiety which typically thinks, feels and imagines the worse.
Sarah is a sweet little nine year old girl. Her parents brought her for therapy because she was crying uncontrollably when it was time to go to school. She also had difficulty staying overnight at her grandparents, was afraid to go for sleepovers at friends, worried if her parents were late to pick her up and didn’t like to try new things. She could read, write and draw very well but would not do it because she might make a mistake. Sarah had Separation and Perfectionist Dragons.
It is imagination that creates fears and imagination can be used to tame those fears. In working with anxious children it helps to externalize their fearful thoughts into the form of dragons which they can learn to tame. The first thing we do after talking about the situations that make them fearful and identifying the dragon’s name is, to make the dragon in art. The dragon can be made from clay or colorful plasticine or painted on paper.
The next thing we do is learn how to tell when the dragon is nearby. The child learns where in their body they feel the anxiety. Some children get ‘butterflies’ in their tummy, feel hot in their face or all over, have fast heartbeats or other anxiety symptoms. This sensitivity can let them know it’s time to do some dragon taming.
Dragons are tricksters. They scare us by saying bad things will happen to us and try to make us believe this is true because of the way our bodies are feeling. We need to make the dragon tell the TRUTH. There are four questions in the Dragon Taming Kit that we must pull out and ask the dragon. What has happened before when we were in the situation? What else could be happening? What has happened to other people? What is most likely happening now?
When Sarah asked her Separation dragon what happened the last time she went to school, he had to tell her “NOTHING HAPPENED”, in fact she had lots of fun. When she asked him what else could be happening when her parents were late to pick her up, he had to tell her that maybe they were in traffic or stopped for a coffee. When she asked him about what happened to other children who went to sleepovers he had to admit that they had a lot of fun. When she made him tell the truth about what was likely to happen if she slept over at her grandparents, the poor dragon just said “You’re going to have fun”.
The other two things in the Dragon Taming Kit are RELAXATION and COURAGE. Once the child gets good at making the dragon tell the TRUTH, it’s time to learn how to help the body RELAX. Slow breathing through the nose can help the heart stop beating so fast. Relaxing each muscle one by one and/or imagining a special place can make the dragon lie down and go to sleep. Spending time teaching your anxious child relaxation skills can help them learn to do this automatically whenever a dragon shows up.
The last thing in the Dragon Taming Kit is COURAGE. What completely tames the dragon is doing the thing he tells you that you cannot do. You cannot have COURAGE without fear. You would not need COURAGE if you were not afraid. With COURAGE you take your first step in doing whatever it is you are afraid to do. When Joey was afraid to eat butter because his dragon told him it would make him sick, his first step was just to put a little butter on his finger and smell it. Then he had to taste a little bit. Then he started eating things with butter in it. Before he knew it the dragon was tamed and he was not afraid to try the things he had been avoiding.
Dragon taming takes practice. It is important not to give up but keep at it day after day. Once the child has made gains in overcoming a fear, it is important to maintain the gain and not go back to former ways. Using the anxious child’s gifts of imagination, intelligence and sensitivity will teach them lifelong skills in TAMING WORRY DRAGONS.
by Beth Newell, Psychotherapist, Expressive Arts Therapist, C.C.C.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA