Homemade worry doll (made from a clothespin) by Paige S. Spangler
The Life of the Worry Doll
By: Paige S. Spangler, BFA, MS, LCPC Elliott Counseling Group
When a close friend of mine said her young daughter was grappling with anxious thinking, I sent her a package with a tiny worry doll made in Guatemala. The doll is intended to help children with painful thoughts and feelings. Based on a legend, the belief is that the worry doll can help children manage their sorrows, fears, and worries. At night time a child can tell the doll their worries, then place the doll under their pillow, sleep, and the belief is that the doll then takes away these fears overnight. The child can, in theory, wake up feeling as though their worries were alleviated. This ritual is helpful as it helps the child articulate what it is that is bothering them, which helps them "name it to tame it"*. This process also provides symbolism for that is actually happening in sleep, we are typically processing and integrating information from the day in our REM sleep and ideal feeling refreshed and resolved in the morning.
When my friend's daughter got her worry doll and her parents explained to her how she can use it, she asked them something that hadn't dawned on me. She asked, "But how will the doll deal with my worries? How does the doll get rid of the worries?" This is such a thoughtful question that makes a whole lot of sense. When my friend told me this, it made me laugh to think about worrying about your worry doll!
With this new thinking, I updated a therapy worry doll making activities to address the narrative of the worry doll. What is life like for a worry doll anyhow? When I engage children in making their own worry dolls I direct them to think about their doll and what way the doll will process or manage the worries. I encourage the child to think about nature as a a modality for changing the worries. I suggest the doll could use a river to place the worries in, or the earth to plant the seeds of worry in, or the wind to carry away the worries. This additional feature of the worry doll makes it three dimensional and some children have even asked me to make the environment where the worry doll lives. One child turned the place of the worry doll into a factory-like place where the doll had machines to help break down the worries.
I encourage professionals to help children name their worries and think of ways to move those fears forward into the world. The symbolism of the worry doll and where he/she lives helps the child use storytelling to make this process even more complete. Like the Louis Brandeis quote: "sunlight is the best disinfectant", this project helps bring the child's worries into the light and thus alleviates the weight of their distressing feelings.
* From Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson's book "The Whole Brain Child"