Parenting a child with anxiety can be a lot of work. I have seen families who “walk on eggshells” or have stopped going out in public or doing fun things because of their children’s strong emotions. Parents need to know how to talk to their kids about anxiety as a way to open the door to positive parent-child interactions.
However, when parents ask their child to “use their words,” they may become more upset because they just don’t know how. Not because they don’t want to but their emotions might not make sense and just “not feel right.” When kids get upset or frustrated and act out even more, parents come away feeling hopeless, angry themselves or unsure of what to do next time.
Emotions are controlled by the amygdala located deep in the brain. It is responsible for processing all the sensations going on in our body like central station.
Anxiety, in of itself, is not harmful and is actually a way to keep us safe, on alert and be ready for anything by motivating us to prepare. However, when anxiety gets in the way of having fun, doing what we need to do, or affects our relationships, it can be a problem. When anxiety affects a child or teenager, it can affect the entire family.
So, how can I talk to kids about anxiety?
It is best to have a discussion when your child is calm. The goal of the talk is to help “decode” what happens when they feel anxious or scared. Parents can give children facts in simple language. This helps empower children to feel less afraid. It can also help them know you are there to support them.
Here are 4 talking tips to help kids understand their anxiety. You don’t have to do everything all in one sitting and you might have to do it a few times, depending on the child’s age. These are guidelines for things to consider. Feel free to paraphrase or switch out terms used as you see fit.
1. Help your child understand what anxiety is.
When starting the discussion with kids, I start with a simple analogy so that the idea of anxiety is clear and concrete. I start off by asking children if they know what a smoke detector is and why we need them in our homes.
“Do you know why we have smoke detectors in our house?”
“To warn us if there is smoke in the house.”
“Yes, and what do smoke detectors do when there is smoke?”
“It makes a loud noise.”
“Why does it make a loud noise?”
“So it can wake people up or get them to go outside.”
“Right! It helps tell us when there might be danger and to take action.”
“So in the case of smoke in the house, a smoke detector is doing its job and keeping everyone safe.”
Our body has it’s own smoke detector or alarm system…the amygdala
I explain that everyone has their own smoke detector inside their bodies called the amygdala. Depending on why our smoke detector is going off, we might be motivated to take action. Examples include: when we feel nervous about a test, we study; when we have to perform in a show or a recital, we rehearse; when we have to give a talk in front of the class, we write it out and practice.
But, sometimes a kid’s amygdala is super sensitive and it “goes off” a lot more often compared to other kids. What makes the smoke detector sound the alarm can be different things for different kids.
The amygdala can be triggered by spiders, thunderstorms or dark skies, the dark, being alone or any number of things. When it goes off, the amygdala sends signals to the rest of our body to be on high alert and ready. When this happens, the amygdala sends a message to the heart to pump faster. We might notice our breathing is quick or it becomes hard to breathe.
Sometimes our body’s alarm system is triggered, even though we really aren’t in danger. We just think we are. This is a “false” alarm and when this happens, we have to turn the alarm off. Otherwise the alarm keeps going off and then our minds get stuck thinking we must run and hide or avoid something. It makes it hard to do anything else.
Developmental age & whether the child can do what they need to do are important to consider
Some fears are normal and expected based on a child’s age. Separation anxiety (fear of being away from a parent) is common between 10 months to 2 years. Fear of the dark or monsters under the bed is likely in toddlers or preschoolers. Fear of getting sick, being hurt or dying is more likely among school-age children.
If we are constantly on high alert, we can’t stay focused at school or do our homework, practice our music or read a book. Those feelings of needing to stay safe by avoiding something or not trying or doing something take over. For some kids, they need to stay close to their parents or a trusted adult instead of doing something else. This can lead to school refusal, to not trying new things or going new places. It can lead to tantrums and meltdowns.
This is when anxiety becomes a problem.
2. Validate feeling and emotions.
Once the child understands how their amygdala works, switch to talking about feelings and emotions. It is helpful to make sure kids know they should not feel embarrassed about their prior actions or emotions. Rather, it is natural to feel alot of different types of emotions in the moment. Sometimes we can have mixed emotions too (meaning we feel more than one emotion or emotions that don’t seem to go together). Label the emotion your child feels in the moment but point out that everyone feels that emotion at some point–even you! Anger, sad, scared, upset, overwhelm, frustration, distress–anxiety can make us feel a lot of strong negative emotions that feel yucky or make us uncomfortable.
Because our bodies react in physical ways when we feel emotions, we often can remember those moments even more. The good and the bad moments. The awesome and not so awesome moments.
Ask your child what their body feels like when they are having a great time. Have them describe their emotion when recalling the moment. Ask them to think about that emotion now and have them describe what their body feels like. Focus on their face, their hands, their breath and heart beat. If your child has a hard time describing these physical sensations, you can describe what you see their bodies reacting as they retell the story.
Helping children understand that emotions trigger how their body feels will tune them into how their minds (thoughts and emotions) affect their bodies (physical sensations and actions).
3. Gently remind your child that thoughts and feelings, while related, are separate things.
This is important because as your child comes to understand HOW anxiety works, they can learn to adjust their thoughts that occur in the moment. You can’t change emotions but you CAN change your automatic thought when children come to recognize and learn coping thoughts. Having your child verbalize to you their thoughts in the moment can be illuminating to you and your child. When asking your child what thought pops into their head, do not pass judgment. Also make sure to ask if there are other thoughts that pop up. Emotions are tied to our thoughts. So, when a child can identify their thought and if negative, can replace it with a coping thought, the ensuing emotion can be easier to handle. This step is a bit more advanced and your child may need to work with a therapist.
4. Give name to the anxiety but without judgement.
Children with anxiety often feel overwhelmed or distressed by their feelings. Sometimes the source of anxiety is identifiable. Sometimes the source is hard to pinpoint. This is because there are several types of anxiety and children can have more than one type:
- Generalized anxiety (“Something bad is going to happen”)
- Separation anxiety (“I need my parent to stay close”, “If I cannot see my parent, I will be lost.”)
- Panic attacks (“I cannot breathe” or “I’m gonna die” and often have physical symptoms like nausea, chest pain, shortness of breath and worry about having these attacks in public or night)
- Obsessive-compulsive anxiety (counting, checking doors and windows or stove or doing rituals because of the need to do so and cannot move on without doing the ritual)
- Social Phobia (“Everyone will laugh at me if I get up there.”)
- Specific Phobia (can be to specific objects or situations: spiders, fear of the dark, tornados)
- Selective Mutism (refusing to talk in certain situations even though the child has language skills and can use them in the comfort of their parents or home)
Naming the fear helps your child come to understand it is something they can control.
When children can be coaxed to give their anxiety a name, it helps children understand that their anxiety is something they can control. By giving it a name, children can begin to visualize it as something they can get rid of, put in a box for a time, and eventually conquer it.
When a child is starting to show signs of worry/anxiety or fear, the parent can gently say, without judgement: “Is that [insert child’s chosen name for his/her anxiety]?” Then coach the child to do a coping strategy or simply letting your child know you “see” them and are there to lend a hand with gentle reassurance and coaching can make all the difference.
Recommended parenting books for even more on this subject
There are many parenting books out there on this subject but a few of my favorite ones that I have seen and recommend for my clients include:
Anxiety Relief for Kids by Bridget Flynn Walker, PhD
The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears by Lawrence Cohen, PhD
Why Smart Kids Worry: And What Parents Can Do To Help by Allison Edwards
Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents by Ronald Rapee, PhD
And these books…just for kids
What to Do When you Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner, PhD
What to Do When your Brain Gets Stuck: A Kids’ Guide to Overcoming OCD by Dawn Huebner, PhD