Getting to Know the What-If Monster: Helping Young Children With Anxious Thoughts

Last week’s post explored exclusionary language and the power of addressing the underlying issue rather than just shutting down the behavior. This week is a follow up. A continuation of the story. If you haven’t read it, you can revisit it here. To sum up, though, my daughter has been struggling with accepting a new child into her class. She had settled into a rhythm over winter break, and not only was that changing, the composition of her class was changing, too. The end result was an uncomfortable feeling that, as adults, we’d probably recognize as anxiety, and her means of expressing it ended up being via exclusionary language.


“I never want to see him again.”

Well, fast forward a week and things seemed to be better in her world. Sunday night she woke in the middle of the night again, less emotional, but still clearly anxious about school and her new classmate. Due to illness and differing school schedules, she had only met him once, and she knew he would be there on Monday. She was wide awake, and she kept mentioning not wanting to see him ever again. I asked her if she was worried. I asked if her she thought he might not be nice. When she nodded, I felt like I had an in.


Tackling the “What-Ifs”

I channeled Michelle Nelson-Schmidt and started to talk to her about the What-If Monster. If you aren’t familiar with Michelle Nelson-Schmidt, I can’t recommend her enough. She does weekly live storytimes, and she engages so beautifully with her young fans. Her book, Jonathan James and the What-If Monster, is such a great, age appropriate resource for helping young children with fear and anxiety. And Cordelia and Bob is a Unicorn are some of our household favorites.**

As we lay in bed, we talked about the what-ifs. I told her our brains like to look for the scary what-ifs, but what-ifs can be good, too. What if this new boy is really nice? What if he likes to play doctor? What if he could be your best friend?

Things have smoothed out since then. There have been a few bumps, but we are easing back into the rhythms of school and adjusting to unexpected changes, and now we have a foundational framework for talking about anxiety and the power of our thoughts. We can continue to talk about how our thoughts shape how we feel, and how we actually have a say in what we think. If the scary what-ifs are taking over, we can choose to look for the good ones.


Our thoughts create our emotions.

Here’s the deal, on a grown-up level. Our thoughts create our emotions. We aren’t always aware of our thoughts, so we aren’t always in control of them. It makes sense, then, that we can’t always control our emotions.

The link between thoughts and emotions is usually pretty clear with anxiety, though. We can usually identify the thoughts we’re fixating on, and we can see how what we are thinking is driving our anxiety.


We are in charge of our thoughts.

It may not always feel like it, but it’s true. If we understand what are thoughts are, we can work on shifting them. Our thoughts are often disconnected from reality, and this is especially true with anxiety. When are thoughts do have a basis in reality, our emotions shift into grief or anger or excitement. But Anxiety is driven by what-ifs. So the trick- and we can share this with our kids- is to flip the what-ifs. Become aware of them, name them, and turn them around.

This is a powerful skill, becoming aware of our thoughts and how they influence our emotions. When we are aware of our thoughts, we can work to change them. And when we know how to do it ourselves, we can show our kids how to do it, which is especially helpful if they are highly sensitive and prone to anxiety.


The Path of Practice

We can’t teach our kids this skill if we haven’t mastered it ourselves. We first have to learn to identify our own emotions and our thought patterns so we can see the connection between the two.

In my world, this is where writing comes in. Having a daily writing practice allows me to unload everything that’s floating around in my head. That, in itself, is powerful. But you can take it a step further and revisit what you’ve written, paying close attention to the thoughts that present themselves.

When you identify a thought, ask yourself, “Do I actually believe this?” If you don’t, this is your opportunity to reflect on what you do believe and re-frame those thoughts. Write these new thoughts down. Revisit them regularly so they become easier to think.

As you work on identifying your own thoughts, helping your child to identify theirs becomes easier. If you can create safe space for them to talk to you, you can start to reflect back the what-ifs you are hearing and offer them alternatives. In doing this, you provide them with the framework to do it for themselves when they are ready. When you do this, you are helping them build an important skill they will need to grow into emotionally healthy and confident young adults.


Establishing a reflective writing practice can feel overwhelming if writing has never been your thing, but I’ve got you covered. I’ve put together a collection of writing prompts to support parents in developing a reflective writing practice because it’s easier to get started if you’ve got some direction and you’re not just staring at a blank page. Click the button below to claim your writing prompts and dive in.

Claim Yours




** I am an Usborne Books & More Consultant. The links in this post are to my UBAM website.

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