Why Your Anxious Child Should Start Journaling and How to Get Them Started Today

WhyStartJournalingYour anxious child may already have a diary, one she keeps padlocked on her nightstand or one he stashes so secretly you don’t even know it exists. While keeping a diary can be beneficial for noting life events and letting anxious children record a mini-history of their lives, they can reap even bigger benefits with this thing called journaling.

The practice of journaling has created loads of buzz of late, and we even talk about it in The Anxiety-Free Child Program, and with very good reason. It can be a highly effective tool for healing, good health and an even better state of mind – for adults and children alike.

What is This Journaling Stuff?

Unlike the daily “Dear Diary” entries, journaling digs deeper than reiterating the day’s events by delving into the way those events affect us. It reflects on the feelings, emotions and even the anxiety related to the events, allowing us a chance to reflect and engage in self-exploration.

While the practice may sound pretty heavy-duty for a kid, they can get into it as deeply as adults. Journaling has no “right way” or “wrong way” to go about it, and does not need to be done daily. It offers a platform for children with anxiety issues to share their deepest emotions, bare their secrets and expose their innermost woes or desires.

Getting all of that out of their minds and hearts and onto the page can have a profound effect, even when the journal is the only entity privy to their secrets. And the journal should remain the only entity privy to their secrets with no prying eyes from parents or anyone else.

Sorry, mom, no peeking!

Benefits of Journaling 

JournalJournaling can help anyone who engages in it, from victims of violent crime to those suffering from terminal illnesses, from adults going through divorce to children with anxiety.

The many benefits of journaling have been discovered by James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychology professor who spent the past two decades studying the effects of journaling on a wide scope of folks who engaged in it. In addition to his revelations, his research resulted in several books, one of which is entitled “Writing to Heal.” 

Improvements in Physical and Mental Health

It’s often said people are as sick as their secrets, and Pennebaker’s early research showed that adage to be quite true. He found that many people who shared their profound secrets experienced improvement in their physical health. The practice of sharing secrets appeared to work even if the journal was the only place people shared those secrets and even if they proceeded to burn, shred, obliterate or otherwise destroy those writings afterward.

Pennebaker then expanded his studies to reach beyond just those with secrets to include anyone facing stress and anxiety from life’s series of events. Those events could range from larger traumas, such as the death of a loved one and divorce, to the less weighty disappointments and annoyances, such as a rejected job application or a lousy daily work commute. Those who shared their stress, anxiety and woes with their journals were also apt to showing improvements in their health.

One of the reasons behind the profound improvement, Pennebaker said, was because any size life event touches us much more deeply than we may realize.

“Emotional upheavals touch every part of our lives,” Pennebaker says in a University of Texas article. “You don’t just lose a job, you don’t just get divorced. These things affect all aspects of who we are—our financial situation, our relationships with others, our views of ourselves, our issues of life and death. Writing helps us focus and organize the experience.”

The same holds true for anxious children who experience their own brand of trauma. They, too, are touched by job loss and divorce when it affects their parents and the family dynamic. They are also subjected to their own friendship and relationship breakups as well as their own rejections from teachers, coaches and their peers. Each situation has the power to go deeper than the surface to affect a child’s self-esteem, sense of security and, perhaps most importantly, their overall stress and anxiety levels.

What Happens in Your Anxious Child’s Mind

Anxious children, as well as adults, strive to make some type of sense of the things that befall them. The need to understand may not always be at the conscious level, but it can definitely kick around the background. Results of that kicking can include sleeplessness, inability to concentrate, the desire to avoid friends or isolate and, of course, an increase in anxiety.

What Can Happen in Your Anxious Child’s Journal

JournalingMoving a troublesome situation from the background of your child’s mind and onto center stage on the written page helps him process what happened and make sense of it all. Even if the cause of the situation remains a mystery, the effect of writing it out can bring a bevy of benefits. Clearing the issue from their minds lets them freely focus on other things besides their own troubles and other people besides themselves.

“When we translate an experience into language we essentially make the experience graspable,” the University of Texas article says. Journaling is that act of translation that can improve your anxious child’s sleeping patterns and habits, strengthen social connections and interactions and enhance your child’s working memory, which allows him or her to think of more than one thing at once.

Change in Language Use

Another thing that Pennebaker found happens with journaling is a change in the way people use language when they write.

Those that benefitted most from journaling typically were able to construct a story out of the events, rather than just spew random thoughts or stream-of-consciousness writings. The thinking is that the story adds structure and order to the chaotic stream of thoughts or, as the University of Texas put it, the “messy, complicated experience.”

A program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), a language analysis tool Pennebaker and colleagues created, took their lingual insights even further. They found “journalers” reflected an elevated understanding of an issue and more complex thinking when they began to use certain elevated propositions and causal words. These include “except” and “rationale,” as well as “without” and the team of “cause” and “effect.”

LIWC also helped Pennebaker and pals see a change in the journal entries’ point of view. People seemed to reap increased benefits from journaling when they were able to look at a particular situation from more than one point of view or include what other people may be going through. This shift became evident through the use of pronouns, with a move away from earlier ubiquitous uses of “I” and “me.”

Pennebaker says that shift to a focus on others, or the ability to switch back and forth, is a good sign a person is progressing. This progression can result in a better understanding of a specific situation as well as an even greater peace of mind.

When Journaling May NOT be Helpful

Despite its myriad benefits, Pennebaker does note a few journaling caveats. One is not to force the journaling every day, if there’s nothing seemingly worthwhile to journal about. Unlike the dairy that often serves to record the day’s events, journaling instead serves to sort out seemingly complex emotions or comprehend something that confounds.

Forcing it daily can turn it into an arduous or stressful task, rather than a welcome relief.

Due to journaling’s power to dredge up a flurry of feelings and emotions, timing is also very important. You may not want to encourage your anxious child to journal about her cheerleader tryout rejection right before grandma’s big birthday party. You may also want to advise your anxious child to wait a bit until he journals on a particularly traumatic event until his brain has time to recover from the shock.

When your anxious child does journal about something particularly traumatic, Pennebaker advises not to spend ions of time hashing out, rehashing and reliving the event.

“I’m not…convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks,” Pennebaker says. “You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity.”

No one needs to go there, especially children with panic attacks or anxiety disorders.

How to Get Your Anxious Child Started with Journaling 

JournalGet the journal. While an official “journal” of any sort is not necessary, helping your child pick out a special notebook can help make his or her journaling practice more special. Any notebook is fine, as long as there is adequate space for your child to write. Encourage your child to spruce it up with paint makers, glitter pens, stickers or illustrations and adornments he or she enjoys.

Explain the process. Tell your child what the journal is for: to write down anything and everything that bothers him or her, whether it’s big and awful or small and awful. Tell them how the act of writing things down in this special book can help them better understand and deal with things that happen.

The Littler Things: If your child is unsure of what to write about, tell him or her to simply pick something that is very personal and very important to his or her life. It can be something he is constantly thinking about, something she keeps dreaming about, something in their lives they think is bad or good or things they keep avoiding that still manage to keep them awake at night.

The Bigger Things: If your child has gone through a particularly profound or horrific trauma, explain how he or she can start the journaling process on that big thing, writing how the event made her feel, think and act or made her life different. Be sure to warn him or her to only write about things they can handle thinking about right now. Stuff that is too difficult to think about now can certainly wait until later.

Forewarn about emotions. Make sure your child understands that writing about something that upset him or her may bring up some tough emotions and feelings that will again make them sad, angry or upset. Reinforce that those emotions coming to the surface is a good thing as it helps them heal. Also remind the feelings will pass and they are not stuck with the emotions forever.

Promise never to peek – and mean it! Ensure your child knows the journal is his or hers alone and they can safely write whatever they want as they are the only ones who will read it. Tell them they can even write things down and then rip up the pages and throw them away if they want. No one but them will ever know what the secrets the journal has inside.

Remind the writing is only for them. Not only can they be free to express whatever secret or not-so-secret information they want, but they don’t have to worry about correct spelling, grammar or any other rules of writing. No one is going to grade them because no one is going to read it!

Help them find a good time and place. A quiet, comfy area where your child can be alone with his thoughts and write undisturbed is the way to go, perhaps the end of the day after school or right before bed. Pennebaker recommends writing continuously for at least 20 minutes.

Your anxious child can stop writing whenever he or she likes, of course, but the 20-minute period can be a good amount of time to scratch away any surface issues and thoughts to get to the real meat of a problem. Tell them to let the pen be their guide and let it write out whatever comes through it. Journaling is not the time to just sit and think – it’s the time to think and write. Set a timer for your child if he or she wants one and treat it like a fun event or game.

Suggest a schedule. Pennebaker also recommends journaling for at least four days in a row. This can help set up journaling as a habit, get your child used to the process and give an issue ample time in the spotlight if it’s something your anxious child is trying to process or understand. Each day doesn’t have to contain the same topic.

The act of writing is within itself a useful tool for the overall goal: getting the stress and anxiety out of your kid’s mind and onto a piece of paper where they can be processed, dealt with or even discarded to leave your child’s mind free of woes.


Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass, eklarkins, *n*o*o*r*