Do your what-ifs have you worried?
New to the neighborhood, little Willow has some big “what-if” worries. What if the kids don’t like me? What if my new bedroom is scary? Thankfully, Grandma is ready with a plate of cookies and some wise words about how Willow can name her “worry birds” and give them to God.
Authors Dr. Josh and Christi Straub know that today’s children have a lot of real “what-ifs”—about diseases and disasters, friendships and failures, and all-things-growing-up. Willow’s story offers practical lessons to help worry birds fly away.
Why did you write this book? What inspired you to write specifically about worry?
After What Am I Feeling? released, worry was the No. 1 feeling we heard about from parents. I think worry is as much an epidemic as coronavirus is a pandemic. Even prior to the pandemic, research attributed increasing amounts of screen time to increasing rates of anxiety in kids. Coupled with divorce, school shootings, bullying, busyness and pressures to perform, worry was already off the charts. Once the pandemic hit, kids were socially isolated, pulled out of school, away from friends, stuck at home, missing out on once-loved activities and had more screen time than before the pandemic. This became a recipe for further worry.
For whom did you write this book?
The easy answer is kids. With What Am I Feeling?, the feedback we received is how helpful it was even for parents. Though the book is written for kids ages 4-10, the parent gains valuable tools as well for how to talk to a friend or counselor about his or her own worry. Because as research shows, worry has a trickle-down effect from parent to child. It’s imperative we too learn how to manage our worry so we can cultivate a more peaceful environment for our children and give them the tools at an early age for coping with worry and thinking differently about the problems they encounter in the world around them.
Tell us about Willow, the main character in the book. Who inspired that character?
Willow is all of us. Who hasn’t worried about going to a party with people you don’t know? Who hasn’t worried about a move to a new town? But put those worries in the body of a little one, and it changes your perspective. When we sat down to write, we asked our kids, ages 5 and 7 at the time, the worries they wanted in the book. Sitting down with them to find out what they worry about was crazy insightful. Our five-year-old daughter was worried about what to wear to a birthday party. That’s what inspired Willow’s worries about the party.
Where did the idea of the “worry bird” come from?
I (Christi) have fallen in love with birds. So when I first sat down to conceptualize the idea and main story of the book, I did so at my desk overlooking our bird feeder. As I wrote on my computer, I’d take a break by looking up and staring out the window. I watched as bird after bird came flying in and out of the feeder, eating and sometimes flapping away in seconds. God gave me a visual right in that moment. Trying to make sense of our worry is about as effective as trying to hold onto a wild bird. The Lord reminded me of the passage in Matthew 6; if he takes care of those birds, how much more is he taking care of us? Those “worry birds” belong in his hands, not mine. So really, the “worry bird” went from outside my office window onto the pages of the book.
In the middle of a global pandemic that’s affected many people and caused increased anxiety, why is it even more necessary for parents to talk to their children about worry?
I (Josh) wouldn’t say it’s “more necessary,” as I believe kids always deserve to have someone safe in their lives who they can talk to about their worries. However, I do believe the pandemic gave kids more to worry about and also heightened the intensity of their worries as well. For example, when routines get interrupted, it can throw a child off, turning a mild worry of going to school on a normal day into a bigger worry of going to school with a mask and the unknowns of people getting sick. Not only that, but when teachers and kids wear masks, kids have a more difficult time reading the emotions and facial expressions of those around them. This can cause even more worry as our kids try to discern what others think and feel as well. The pandemic isolated a lot of people—and not just physically. When we have nobody to talk to or when someone we do talk to dismisses, minimizes, or criticizes our worry, it just pushes us further into feeling alone. And nothing could be worse for our kids than feeling alone in their worry.
Describe some of the practical lessons and memorable phrases used in the book. How did you come up with these?
In conceptualizing the book and talking to our kids about their own worries, it became apparent to me (Christi) how every worry we talked about started with the words “what if.” I started thinking about my own worries. And again, they started with “what if.” In writing a children’s book, we want kids to pick up on concepts easy to understand. Worry can feel so subjective. It’s a feeling. It’s not easy talking about in a tangible way. But the words “what if” really began to help us in getting our own kids to talk about their worries. Asking their “what ifs” took them from getting stuck in an abstract sort of way—trying to tell us their worries—to a much faster and less frustrating way for them to tell us what was on their minds.
“When you let your worry birds go to the sky, that’s when you are free to fly.” We want to help kids remember big concepts. Worry cripples us and keeps us enslaved to our “what ifs.” But Galatians 5:1 boldly declares it is for freedom that Christ set us free. As worry flaps around in our mind, like those birds, it keeps us feeling trapped and alone. But teaching our kids to talk to a loved one and to pray to God about their worry has a physiological effect on our bodies. We’re no longer the only ones holding the worry birds. In effect, we’re opening up the cage of our mind and letting them go. But if we hold our worry, we also suppress joy. If we hold our worry, we also suppress courage. Both come by way of supportive relationships. And when you know you have someone who knows your worry and still loves and supports you, that’s a feeling that releases us to show up for others and be free to be ourselves.
How have you seen your own children struggle with worry? Which lessons/phrases have you found to be the most effective with them?
We have one child whose worry comes from self-imposed pressure and living up to the perceived standards of others. Another child worries about when the coronavirus will be over so we can see family again. To be honest, these worries are not exclusive to our children. As parents, we have to be honest with ourselves about how we project our own worries onto our kids. Our greatest weapon in helping our kids deal with worry is learning how to manage it ourselves.
Our kids use the “what if” statements so well now. I think before the “what ifs” they got frustrated with how to verbalize their worry. That statement alone has been a game changer.
How can parents use this story to help their kids manage worry and anxiety in a biblical way?
At the end of the day, helping our kids manage worry is the lifelong process of teaching them to trust God. Please read that again. It’s a lifelong process. None of us fully 100% trust God with every aspect of our lives. That’s the process of sanctification.
But if we can use this story to get our kids to learn from an early age that worries don’t have to control their thoughts, we set them up with tools to manage the suffering and trouble Jesus says they’ll experience for the rest of their lives. We’re not eliminating problems from their lives; we’re giving them the tools to handle those problems. And that begins by realizing—not just in our heads, but also in our hearts—that God can handle anything, absolutely anything we’re going through. And he gave us parents, friends, pastors, teachers and coaches so we don’t have to be alone. We can choose to be brave and live free even when we worry.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
- You’re not crazy for worrying. We all have “what ifs,” even Grandma.
- God gave us loved ones so we don’t have to be alone in our worry.
- God wants us to trust him even with what might feel like our silliest worry.
- When we have permission to name our worry and either speak it aloud or draw it on paper, our worry is much less crippling than the power we gave to it flapping in our minds.
- Talking to a loved one, praying to God, and drawing your “what if” give kids the tools to move from worry to bravery.