I watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with my 9 year old the other day after having finished reading the book with him. What a great movie. One of the scenes which particularly struck me was where Harry’s class were learning to deal with a kind of magical creature called Boggarts.
Boggarts take the shape of your most feared thing in all the world and change according to who is looking at them. The spell Harry’s class was taught to help banish Boggarts was “Ridikulus”, and to perform the spell you have to imagine your feared object or person in a ridiculous or funny way. Children imagined scary teachers dressed in old women’s clothing, giant spiders on roller skates and Egyptian mummies becoming unravelled.
This is quite similar to a technique psychologists sometimes use with people with anxiety called “defusion”. The idea of defusion is to help people be able to see their feared situations as merely pictures and words in their minds, rather than a real, immediate threat.
For example, in the clinic I have asked children to draw pictures of their fears and then we poke gentle fun at these pictures by recreating them in different ways. In the pictures here you can see a child’s drawing of a spider and then their altered drawing of this spider with a vase and flower coming out it’s mouth and wearing a bow.
The child was asked to think of the funny picture, every time they thought of their feared image.
With teens, I have asked them to say out loud the scary or distressing thoughts (e.g, “people don’t really like me” – and then we sing these words over and over again in silly voices, or I use an iPhone voice changer app to record the words and then play them back with strange effects.
This is only one way of managing anxiety. With kids and teens, as well as defusing from worrying words and pictures, we also need to help them make plans for dealing with fears, help them to see the logical flaws in their fears, help them face their fears and focus on what is important to them.
However, when defusion is used well, it can be very powerful.
As parents and caregivers, you can help children and teens to start to defuse from their mental images and words – if you are very gentle and caring in the way you do it. For example, as well as the examples above, you can also ask children to imagine their fears in a funny situation, ask teens to come up with a comedic movie story line about their worries. Even just asking kids and teens to describe and/or draw their fears is a way of them starting to defuse from it. Once images and thoughts are "outside" our minds, we can often see them a little more clearly.
Remember, the idea is not to make fun of children or teens themselves – instead we must be really empathic and caring about their suffering. But instead we want to see if we can help young people to themselves be able to stand back and see the monsters in their head for what they are – not a reflection of reality, but simply the product of humans having imaginative and very capable brains.