The idea of a worry box is for children to create a special place they can put their worries, so that they are ‘out’ of their heads but still held somewhere safe. Worry boxes give them something physical to do with a worry so they can acknowledge it, but don’t feel the need to carry the worry around inside their head anymore. Simultaneously, the process of writing out a worry makes it real – it makes them feel validated and safe that something is holding their anxious thoughts for them. For most children relief is almost immediate because the worry is contained and felt more manageable.
Another benefit of a worry box is that it helps develop and foster the mindfulness skill of observing thoughts, as opposed to getting tangled or caught up in them, helping kids to understand that thoughts are just thoughts – that they can be let go and just ‘noted’.
Worry boxes can be explained to children in the following way:
Step 1: Normalise worry
We all worry – sometimes we worry lots, and sometimes just a little bit – it’s a normal thing our brain does as a way to keep us safe. Worries are just thoughts, and often they are thoughts about things that might happen, not things that are actually happening. Sometimes our brain worries about too many things at once, or about the same thing and we can get stuck. When we get stuck, it can mean we can’t focus on things, or do things we want to do, or it might make us feel big feelings like anger or sadness or really scared.
Step 2: Introduce the worry box
We are going to make a special box, a worry box, that you can be in charge of making, to be a special place for you to put your worries - to keep them safe and so that you don’t have to hold on to them so tightly inside your head. When you have a worry, you can write it or drawn it and you can put your worries into the worry box - no worry is too big or too small or too silly to go in the worry box. Once your worry is in the box it can stay in there for as long as you want.
Step 3: Explore how the worry box will work
Once you have put your worries in the box – you can decide when we will empty the box together and go thru the worries. Maybe later today, or tomorrow, or we can decide another time together. When we look through the worries, some of them might not be worrying you anymore – we can throw those worries away. The ones that are still worrying you, we can work them out together.
Create your worry box:
- Take your special box Brave or Able came in, or any box – tissue boxes and shoe boxes work great too.
- Create a ‘mouth’ or a ‘gap’ that you can put worries into.
- Allow your child or young person to decorate their box in a way that feels good for them. This could include paper, stickers, glitter – anything that helps them feel connected. Some kids might like to think of their worry box like a monster that ‘eats’ their worries. Others might think of it like a post box, or a money box, keeping their worries safe. Some will like to assign a name to their worry box, and use this to externalise fears, for example “I’m going to feed Gary my worry and he will hold on to it for me”.
- Place their worry box in a safe place – this might not be in their bedroom as they may want some space from their worries. If you can, let your child or young person choose where their worry box goes.
- Near their worry box have some small or scrap pieces of paper, or post-it notes and some textas, pens, pencils etc. so they can write or draw their worries out. One piece per worry works best.
Using the worry box:
Once you’ve created your Worry Box, there are a few ways you can use it.
Some kids might like to carry notepaper or post-it notes with them – at school, or when out or at home, and write in the moment when something is worrying them, then place those worries in the box when they have access, letting it accumulate over the day.
For other kids, a good habit is to set up “worry time”, when they have a dedicated time to write down their worries. For example, you might set aside 10 minutes a day when they write down their worries and place them in their box. This creates a great habit of delaying worry and having a dedicated time to worry.
Younger children might need help writing their worries out, so you may need to assist them in writing, or they could prefer to draw their worries – literally, such as a monster under the bed, or a shark or they might draw something more abstract, such as a scribble of red paper. What’s important is the process of them trying to externalise the feeling, and then placing it out of their body, into the box.
For older kids or teens, this can transition to a worry diary or book, where they similarly dedicate time each day to writing out worries and externalising them.
Once the worries are in the box you can ask your child or young person how long they want to leave the worries for before they empty the box. A good time frame is usually a day, but it may be half a day, or it may be two or three days. You can then ask them to look over their worries and decide if any of them are still worrying them and if any of them aren’t worrying them anymore.
We can ask our child or young person if they would be happy to share the ones that are still worrying them with us, so we can help them with the worry. This will hopefully provide an opportunity to validate feelings, problem solve, and reassure – making them feel supported. It’s important when we do this that we stay curious, and don’t invalidate their worry – but rather ask questions, help them think it through and ask our child or young person what they need. It could be solutions, a cuddle, reassurance or just to listen. As we know as adults, some worries can’t be fixed as they aren’t within our control, but it helps sometimes to just have someone hear our worries and know that we aren’t alone.
If there are worries that are no longer worrying them, you can suggest your child or young person throw these worries away. This is a great teaching lesson in how time can help worry, in how perspectives change, and how mastery can change. The physical task of throwing away worries helps your child or young person feel more in control and confident that not all worries last forever.
For older kids, a nice extension step is to work through the worries that are still present and sort them into two categories: what do I have control over and what do I not have control over. For the worries they have control over, you can help develop their skills in problem solving to help come up with solutions, plans and strategies. For those they do not have control over, it is an opportunity to discuss their coping strategies, distress tolerance, letting things go and emotional management techniques that they find helpful.
At times, they may not feel comfortable in sharing their worries, or they might not be ready to share. When this happens, you can suggest they place it back in the box and you can revisit it again next time. It’s important for your child or young person that their worry box is as much within their control as we can – and we respect it as a private space – only looking at worries when they ask us to and when they want to discuss things with us. This strategy is about building agency and confidence – and us supporting this growth.
It can be good to follow up dedicated worry time with something positive. Some calm breathing with their Brave and Able Breathing Buddies or practicing other coping skills is a good way for them to integrate skills development into their daily routine, laying the foundation and pathway for resilient mental wellbeing. Another option is to create a second box – a Positivity Box. After your child’s dedicated worry time, get them to spend some time writing down positive things that happened in the day, or thoughts that make them feel good, or drawing pictures that make them feel happy and putting them in their separate Positivity Box. This creates additional practice in mindfulness and gives them something to come back to if they need reminding of things that make them feel good.
Some other examples of worry boxes:
Thanks to Dr Lauren Moulds of Big Little Steps Psychology for helping us create this guide.