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The Phoenix Child Magazine - Winter 2008Using Socratic Questions to Reduce Stress

Stress and anxiety often surround certain themes in children, from fears of the dark and sleeping alone because a burglar might break in, fears of embarrassing oneself while reading aloud in class, fears of natural disasters, to fears of bees and wasps. Though these fears can include anything imaginable, hallmark features of panic and excessive anxiety in general involve overestimating the odds of disastrous situations coming to fruition as well as how bad the situation will get, and a lack of a plan to help prevail should the situation occur. This way of analyzing and dealing with situations only further compounds the stress response, resulting in a belief that such situations are insurmountable. Unfortunately, the laws of conditioning suggest that avoiding these situations further puts the fear up on a pedestal, making the scenario even more likely to be unresolved in the future.

One of the things that I find beneficial at my office is to utilize a set of questions referred to as Socratic questioning. The main theme here is that these questions are logical in nature and focus more so on planning rather than panicking. A sample of the questions when dealing with anxiety include:

  1. What is the evidence for this?
  2. Is this always true?
  3. Has this been true in the past?
  4. What are the odds of this really happening (or being true)?
  5. What is the very worst that could happen? What is so bad about that?
  6. What would I do if the worst happened?
  7. Am I looking at the whole picture?

My suggestion to parents, particularly those with anxious children, is to post this set of questions both in the child's bedroom and on the refrigerator. Attempt to work applicable items into as many situations of excessive worry as possible. Do not answer for your child, however, many parents find it helpful to help better estimate the odds of certain scenarios occurring by asking the child how many times this has in fact happened to them or to people close to them. For a child terrified that they will be kidnapped as their parents sleep soundly in the next room, parents can help the procedure by asking the child how often this has occurred in the past. In the unlikely event that a kidnapper could enter the home, short role-plays might help bring concreteness to the event, and help to devise realistic and panic reducing strategies, such as waking parents or hiding in a safe place. As feared situations must ultimately be faced in a series of gradual steps, this type of dialogue sets the stage for success both to encourage the initiation of facing a fear, and then utilizing more calming self-talk while the child inevitably faces some level of stress. It will also be important for parents to talk aloud in a similar fashion as they handle their own stressors in the presence of their children.

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