How to Explain Anxiety to Kids
Nowadays, conversations surrounding mental health, specifically anxiety, are more widespread than they have ever been. However, while these discussions are common, explaining anxiety to kids can be a bit different to navigate in comparison to a conversation with adults.
The process of how to explain anxiety to a child can be broken down into four easy steps. Keep in mind that you will want to do this in a way that is easy to understand and allows your young child to identify if and when they are experiencing anxiety. Read on to learn how to best explain anxiety to a child
#1 What is anxiety?
The first step when it comes to explaining anxiety to kids is to break down the term “anxiety” in a way that is easy for children to understand, yet still honest and upfront. Here are a few bullet points about anxiety that can help guide your conversation with your child regarding what anxiety is and how it functions:
- Anxiety can be a thought (mental) or feeling (physical) that can feel very scary
- Anxiety is actually not dangerous and can sometimes be helpful in certain situations
- Everybody experiences anxious feelings sometimes, it is a normal
When having this conversation with your child, remember that understanding doesn’t happen overnight. That said, doing “check-ins” with your child and maintaining an ongoing conversation about anxiety is important in order for your child to fully grasp the concept of anxiety and how it functions in day to day life.
#2 Encourage openness
Another important aspect of explaining anxiety to kids is to encourage openness during these types of conversations. One way to go about sparking openness with your child is by being vulnerable yourself. Consider opening up and explaining a time when you had anxiety – digging deep into what the situation was, what your anxiety felt like, and how you were able to overcome those anxious feelings. Similarly, you can encourage your child to do the same.
Here are a few open-ended questions that encourage self-reflective thought and can lead to openness:
- Can you tell me about a time when you felt nervous or scared? What did it feel like?
- What are some things that make you feel worried?
- When I was your age I was scared of _____, do you have that intense fear also?
Regardless of how you choose to encourage openness, be sure to validate your child’s feelings while listening intently and nonjudgmentally. In doing so, you will create a sense of trust and further create space for openness between you and your child in the future.
#3 Help your child recognize anxiety in their lives
Once your child has a basic understanding of anxiety and the importance of openness, you can help them recognize feelings of anxiety when they arise. This step can be broken down into two ways: thoughts (mental) and feelings (physical).
Mental anxiety symptoms
Thoughts are one of the first ways that anxiety presents itself, and therefore are important to recognize in order to help manage anxiety. Anxious thoughts can come in the form of “bad thoughts” or scary “what if” questions that linger in the mind.
One way to help your child recognize these anxious thoughts is to have them express those thoughts when they arise. Further, you can help your child identify that the thoughts themselves are not dangerous, they are simply thoughts that are passing through their mind like many others during the day.
Physical anxiety symptoms
A creative way to help your child recognize physical symptoms of anxiety is to draw out an outline of a body head-to-toe either on paper or with chalk on the ground outside. Once you have a body shape outlined, you can give your child a marker or chalk and have them color the parts of their body where they feel anxious.
Commonly, children will identify their stomach, throat, and heart as the main areas where they feel symptoms of anxiety. When children can visualize where they are feeling their anxiety, they can better recognize when anxiety is present in their body.
#4 Coping mechanisms
Lastly, coping with feelings of anxiety looks different to each and every person, however, here are a few successful means of helping children cope with anxiety:
Drink cold water
Coldwater can stimulate the senses when anxiety arises. That said, giving your child a cold glass of water to drink when they feel anxious can bring them out of the anxiety cycle through sensorial stimulation.
Imagine a safe space
Familiarize yourself with breathing exercises for kids, and have your child imagine a space that makes them feel safe — verbally talking through or writing out all of the details of that safe space. Remind them that they can return to this safe space any time that they begin to feel anxious.
Lastly, talking to a therapist is a great option for children with an anxiety disorder. With a wide range of counseling options and mental health services for children, Children’s Bureau offers help and support for children from 0-21 years of age. Focusing on those in vulnerable communities, Children’s Bureau makes resources available to those who need it most. For more information on mental health, visit our blog on Signs of Depression in Children.
Breathe in, breathe out
You’ve got this. Ironically, trying to figure out how to have challenging conversations with your children about topics such as mental health can in fact spark some anxiety in itself. However, working with the tools listed above is not only beneficial for your child when it comes to understanding and managing anxiety, but for yourself as well. So don’t forget to take a deep breath and a moment for yourself, remember, you are your child’s best example.