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Guest Writer: Claire LaPoma, Sharing on the Power of a Tool to Ease Worries


Navigating emotions, worries, and stress are hard--and even more difficult to work through when you’re a little one. Claire walks us through self-regulation techniques and how using an object like a worry doll to help tame those big feelings can be beneficial.

Worry dolls are believed to have been started in Southern America. The legend is that by confessing your fears, doubts, worries or sorrows to the doll, putting it in its box and placing it under your pillow before going to sleep, your emotions will be softened by morning.

Claire and Slumberkins Co-founder Kelly Oriard met in graduate school while both studying for their masters in MCF. After graduating, they worked together at the same school collaborating and consulting one another on a number of cases. Claire and Kelly hold many of the same positions when it comes to working with children and families and continue to consult with one another within a consultation group.

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A few years back when I was working as a school-based mental health therapist at a large PK-8 school in Portland, OR, I received a welcomed gift from a young client of mine, Dario*. Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, the token from Dario’s home country filled my heart with gladness: itty-bitty worry dolls, complete with a colorfully painted box to rest in. He explained in Spanish that they are used by children as a tool to help with tough feelings that arise. 

Dario had brought his worry dolls with him as he journeyed north into the United States. They’d comforted him in the detention center, reminding him of home as well as providing a safe outlet for emotional expression while far from his family. He told me that when he felt lonely, he could reach into his pocket and touch a small doll, remembering fondly how he and his grandmother would make them to sell in the market. Within these tiny inanimate objects lay a connection to dear memories of home, identity and family. They also represented people important in Dario’s life that were no longer present, and he imagined conversations with his loving grandmother as he whispered to them each night.

These tiny-but-powerful dolls invite children to speak their feelings aloud, a process that Dr. Dan Siegel calls “naming to tame”. In putting feelings into words and naming our emotional experience, we are able to connect the right and left hemispheres of the brain, sending calming hormone signals to our minds and bodies. Ways to do this include:

  • Noticing and acknowledging the feelings of our children — “You seem frustrated. Breathe with me. You are safe.”
  • Exploring our physical responses to emotions — “Where in your body does your scared live? How do you know when it’s there? What do you notice?”
  • Modeling by using “I statements” to directly name our feelings — “I feel frustrated when you throw your hard toys.”

In Spanish, worry dolls are called Muñeca Quitapena, literally meaning “doll who takes away pain.” When I first learned this, I noticed an instinctive thought arise: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my daughter never had to experience emotional distress and I could just take it away, poof, abracadabra? One of the hardest things by far about being a parent is seeing our children in pain and we could instantly ease it. Seeing them sad, hurt, or at the will of an overpowering feeling like anger or anxiety triggers great discomfort in most parents and causes us to spring into action and employ our favorite “fix it” response.

The truth is, we humans are feeling machines. It’s not realistic to protect our children from emotional pain, or take it away for them. In fact, our attempts to do so may be sending a message that whatever feeling they are experiencing in that moment needs to shift, doesn’t belong or is just plain “wrong”. Maybe we minimize, distract, dismiss, rescue, or punish with the hope that the emotional upset will be short-lived. We may celebrate and encourage positive emotions, while suppressing negative expression of emotions or viewing it as a problem to be solved.  

The worry doll’s real gift, much like Slumberkins’ Alpaca and its associated story book, is opening an opportunity for children to express what is on their minds, without the fear that they will be met with discomfort, punishment or rescuing. Children are incredibly skilled self-healers, which means they often release emotions spontaneously and authentically when given the opportunity (even during less-than-opportune moments, like in a quiet library because another child grabbed a desired book first).

The goal in these moments is to welcome all feelings by acting as a safe container for our children. They need us to help carry the load of their strong feelings through the act of co-regulation, an essential ingredient on the road to developing self-regulation skills as a their brains mature. By acting as a safe, consistent and calm base when our children are upset, we send the message:

  • You are not alone
  • You are safe
  • I can handle your emotional expression
  • We will get through this together
  • Every one of your feelings is perfect just the way it is
  • I’ve been there. These feelings are an opportunity for learning and growth

This doesn’t mean condoning the challenging behaviors that sometime accompany big feelings, but rather, remaining calm and acknowledging the feeling behind the behavior while holding our clear limit. “You are angry, but you still cannot hit.”

Over time, the act of co-regulating our children by using our own self-regulation skills to stay present with them from a place of non-reactivity will become internalized. We want to be the faces our children imagine when we are not nearby to support them in the moment. A special object like the Alpaca Snuggler can represent a child’s loved one, just as the worry dolls reminded Dario of his grandmother, and trigger memories of positive experiences in which they felt seen, heard, and accepted when distressed. The Alpaca board book is the perfect way to introduce this skill to your children, guiding them through sharing their emotions with the Snuggler. Slowly as they grow, children will build an internal community of trusting adults that have helped to hold their emotional ups and downs and proven that they will, in fact, get through them.  

*Name changed to protect identity.

Claire LaPoma holds a Master’s of Science in Marital, Couple and Family Therapy and is a Licensed Professional Counselor. She has a private therapy practice in Bend, Oregon, specializing in children, adolescents and families. www.ClaireLaPoma.com.

66 comments

  • Ashley

    Wow! Such a powerful message that hit home with me. I grew up in a family where you did not talk about your emotions and today that has caused me to suffer with anxiety and depression. I love that Slumberkins encourage children (and parents) to talk about their feelings at an early age. I can’t help but think that this same principal goes for adults and that instead of bottling up our emotions and worrying, we should talk more and pray more.


  • Ann

    I’m glad I read this article as my own child is becoming toddler age, emotions are developing and we as parents need to know how to best nurture that growth. This article provides good strategies and reminders!


  • Kelly H

    I’m glad I read this before especially with my son just reaching toddler age! This is wonderfully written!


  • Suzanne

    I had never thought about how much my son’s stuffed animals mean to him. My husband and I were just talking about how we would do anything to prevent our little guy from having sadness, pain, fear, etc… obviously, we can’t prevent that 100%, but its nice to know he has a fuzzy friendo that can handle the spontaneous emotions when the bad stuff does happen… or the good stuff. A confidant is a confidant through good and bad I suppose!


  • Ashley Y

    Great post! I love the idea of putting into words and naming feelings. I think it’s important to learn how to understand our feelings and to develop those self regulating skills.


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