Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice

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Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice - Early View Articles, Pages ${blockparams.parentJournalIssue.pageRange}

How do anxious children attempt to regulate worry? Results from a qualitative study with an experimental manipulation


The objective of this study was to explore how anxiety‐disordered children attempt to regulate their worry.


An experimental manipulation was applied, followed by a qualitative interview.


Thirty children aged 7–13 were enrolled in this study. Each child was presented with a black mystery box, was told that shortly he/she would have to feel what was inside the box, and was then left alone for 4 min, prior to commencing the task. The purpose of the experimental manipulation was to induce slight levels of worry in the child, so that he/she could better report on worry regulation strategies. Afterwards, an interview about how the child had regulated worry during the experimental manipulation and in everyday life was undertaken. The interviews were coded using thematic analysis.


Five main themes were uncovered. These were (1) internal regulation of worry, for example, thinking about something else and self‐reassurance talk, (2) external regulation of worry, for example, behavioural avoidance and distraction, (3) perceived effect of strategies, (4) shifting between strategies, and (5) absence of a strategy.


Our results demonstrate that anxious children use a variety of behavioural and cognitive strategies to regulate worry. They use these strategies in combination, they generally perceive them as ineffective, and they sometimes do not report any strategy for attempting to regulate their worry. These results indicate that clinicians should be curious about which strategies anxious children use to regulate their worry, how these strategies interact with each other, and how they are implemented by the child.

Practitioner points

  • Using an experimental manipulation followed by an interview, this study sought to investigate how anxious children seek to regulate their worries.
  • Anxious children attempt to regulate their worry with use of behavioural regulation strategies, such as avoidance and distraction, and with use of cognitive regulation strategies, including thinking about something else, self‐reassurance talk, and thought suppression.
  • Sometimes, however, anxious children are not able to report a regulation strategy for a specific worry episode, suggesting that they may not always have a strategy or that they lack the introspective ability to report what they did.
  • Clinicians should be aware that anxious children may use internal (cognitive) regulation strategies while at the same time using behavioural regulation strategies, such as avoidance.

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