I wrote The Worries: Sohal Finds a Friend because I was looking for a book for my eight-year-old son to help him with his worries. That doesn’t mean I wrote the book as a guidebook for him. Let’s face it, publishing is a slow process so he is now ten on the book’s release! It also doesn’t mean that I’m sitting in some idyllic parenting setting reading my book to my son and magically curing him of his worries. What it did do is help me to think about his worries and how he expresses them and deals with them. Also, it helped me think about how I deal with them as his parent. I say that in a separate sentence because a big part of my « Worries journey » was stepping back as a parent and realising that my children’s worries were not my worries. Nor were their worries because of my worries. No doubt our children could be affected by how they see us parents deal with our anxieties but I wasn’t the almighty cause of theirs (and any parent who is familiar with Our Lady of Guilt, you probably know what I’m talking about here!)
Worries can be messy…but it’s ok, you don’t have to sweep up right away!
I also realised in my research and writing of this book that, while I needed to help my children deal with their worries, I should not do the worrying or solving for them. In one of the opening scenes, we see Sohal’s parents at bedtime both trying to help him deal with his worries (fairly frantically): yoga breathing advice, song-singing, sheep counting…This helicopter parenting might be familiar. It definitely is to me, especially because I am also a teacher so I ‘should’ know what to do, right?! (Ha ha) It is also, of course, part of this natural ‘animal’ instinct of wanting to take away our children’s pain, immediately. In a recent Instagram post, I doodled: « Worries can be messy…but it’s ok, you don’t have to sweep up right away! » Before being a parent, I had this cliché in my head of what a worried child might look like: quiet, nervous, mildly biting their nails…which somehow seemed ‘neater’ to deal with. You’d just have to give lots of reassurance, boost their confidence, talk about their worries…right?! Then I learned that worries could be far ‘messier’: they could make a child aggressive, controlling and, the trickiest of all, not actually wanting to be helped at all. Add to that all the ways children know how to get your attention or trigger you. How impossible it is to have empathy when you yourself are angry! Then I thought about this idea of ‘mess’ which doesn’t really have to be bad mess at all (a bit like the insane amount of Playmobil scattered all over my daughter’s bedroom right now) What if we didn’t have to tidy it away like it’s our house and we’ve got guests coming in 5 minutes?! For one thing, let the guests see the mess! (i.e. let’s not hide or be embarrassed by our anxieties or those of our children). And for another, what if we sit in it for a bit with our children and make it OK to worry (« don’t worry! » is a phrase I now try to avoid!)? Well, I have learnt that when this happens, children can be incredibly resourceful. Not only that, but coming up with their own solutions to their worries is huge for a child’s confidence.
Another important element in making The Worries was humour. I wanted worries to be depicted not as something to be feared but as something that can be funny. Let’s face it, laughter is cathartic and children have a brilliant sense of humour. It’s another tool in our mental health toolbox. Also, when I think of my family and friends and how particular their worries are to them (no two worries are ever the same!) I think of them as endearing more than anything else. If we took away a person’s anxieties, we’d also be taking away part of their personality. So what if we had this similar ‘friendly’ approach to our own worries? What if we stop trying to get rid of our worries but try to befriend them instead? As Sohal discovers, trying to ‘get rid’ of worries only makes them grow. It’s only when he starts to let them hang around and show them to people that they eventually start playing and…well, I won’t spoil the ending of the book for you!
Recently I spoke to child psychologist Julia Newbery who works on the paediatric ICU unit in St George’s hospital in London. She certainly knows a fair thing or two about anxiety, especially at the moment with Covid having a big impact on the anxiety of families in hospital. She taught me that the science behind Sohal’s drawing of his worries: the very act of naming our worry reduces the activity of the amygdala – the « fight or flight« part of our brain, « the downstairs brain », or in parenting terms, the « mad mega meltdown » part of the brain (potentially triggered by ‘peas for dinner’, ‘someone sitting in the seat you secretly chose’ or ‘not peeling a banana correctly’. Familiar anyone?) Furthermore, this naming of a worry increases the activity of « the upstairs brain » i.e. the pre-frontal cortex, where our emotions are processed and considered. It sounds obvious, but talking, writing or drawing our feelings has an immediate benefit on our brains. It’s easy to think about feelings in loose or abstract terms but when you think about it in scientific terms, you realise that this kind of activity, combined with the neuroplasticity of the brain, means we can actually rewire our neurons to better deal with stressful situations.
Here are the opening lines of the book: « Sohal was full of worries. He had been for as long as he could remember. His parents and teachers often called him ‘a worrier’, but he wasn’t really sure what that meant. It didn’t sound good, though, and this made Sohal worry even more. » There are a million reasons why it’s not good to label children as worriers (and so much harder to avoid than we think!) but neuroplasticity is definitely one of them. We can all learn to modify our experiences and memory of worries, so no one is ‘a worrier’ for life. Look how robust we and our children are at dealing with a global pandemic?! Yes we all have our dark days and there are people out there having deeply traumatic experiences right now. But what I am constantly astounded by is just how resourceful we humans can be. In children’s mental health week, let’s show this to our kids. Let’s do this by starting a mental health conversation now with them. And where better a place to start than stories?!
Hope you enjoy The Worries! Thanks for reading,