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How to Explain Anxiety to a Child—8 Expert Tips

How to Explain Anxiety to a Child—8 Expert Tips



By Z. Andrew Jatau

By Z. Andrew Jatau

By Z. Andrew Jatau

Once you begin noticing signs that your child may have anxiety, it's important to talk to them and help them understand what anxiety is, as well as how to manage their feelings in a healthy way. Unfortunately, explaining anxiety to kids isn't always easy. In fact, it can be quite difficult and daunting at times—especially when it comes to younger children.

Hopscotch’s Head of Clinical Programming  Andrew Jatau, MS, LPC, a licensed professional counselor, offers his expert advice on how to explain anxiety to a child.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion that makes us feel scared, overwhelmed, or worried. While it's normal to have some worries and fears in life, when these feelings become so strong that they start to interfere with everyday life, it may be considered an anxiety disorder. And unfortunately, children can experience these feelings just like adults.

"There are a lot of resources that can provide parents with a basic understanding of anxiety. It's helpful to be knowledgeable because it makes you more mindful of how you interact and intervene when your child is experiencing anxiety," explains Jatau.

And in most cases, he finds that children are typically able to understand the concept of anxiety when it’s explained to them in a developmentally appropriate way. “It’s all about putting in the time and effort to figure out how to explain it in a way that your child will understand,” he shares.

Signs and Symptoms of anxiety

"Make sure you have a full understanding of the symptoms of anxiety and which ones your child may be exhibiting. Observe and understand first before making an attempt to intervene," says Jatau. But keep in mind, anxiety can present itself differently from child to child. 

According the Jatau, common signs and symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep, or nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating due to the overwhelm of thoughts and worries
  • Physical complains, such as stomach aches or headaches
  • Fidgeting or restlessness
  • Avoidance or refusal to engage in certain activities or be around a certain group of people
  • Clingy behavior around parents 
  • Increased irritability or anger, which can lead to tantrums

How to explain anxiety to a child

So now that we’ve established what anxiety is and common symptoms, here are 8 expert tips for explaining anxiety to kids.

Address the conversation in an age-appropriate manner.

When approaching the conversation of anxiety, Jatau first suggests tailoring the conversation based on where your child is developmentally. Young children will struggle to understand these big feelings in the same way an older child would be able to. Take this into consideration and explain it in a way that they can understand.

For example, young children tend to be imaginative and creative. Jatau says, "You can create an imaginary character to embody their anxious thoughts,” he explains “Externalizing anxiety separates these thoughts from your child and makes it easier for them to confront. For example, 'Is Myra making you feel worried again? What should we tell her to make her go away?'" 

Older children will likely respond better to a conversation, without the use of characters, says Jatau. Explain to them that anxiety is an emotion, like how they may feel happy or sad, but it’s a feeling that can become extremely overwhelming at times. 

Consider your relationship with the child. 

Before you address the topic, take a look at your relationship with your child. It’s important to understand how a child processes information, how comfortable they are in discussing tough topics, and how to make sure that your words are understood. 

Start by asking open-ended questions about how they feel and what kind of things make them worry or scared, Jatau advises. Ask how they would like you to help them when they start feeling this way.

Consider the timing. 

Choose the right time to start the conversation: "You want to make sure that you are approaching them in a moment when they are not experiencing anxiety and are feeling relaxed and willing to engage," says Jatau. This will help them open up more quickly and be more open to the conversation.

Address specific observations. 

“You can start by leaning on the observations that you’ve made, and bringing up a particular symptom or behavior that you might have noticed,” says Jatau. For example ‘Hey, I’ve noticed that sometimes your stomach starts to hurt right before your soccer game’ or ‘It looks like you don’t look forward to going to school in the mornings’.. 

Allow them time to share. 

Talk openly and honestly with your child. "Allow them to share their thoughts and feelings about your observations and continue to ask questions and respond to them in a non-judgmental manner," says Jatau. 

Keeping the lines of communication open will help you better understand how they are feeling, what their triggers are, how to best support them, and how to move forward in managing anxiety together. 

Focus on anxiety as a feeling.

“When speaking with your child, it is easier to focus on teaching and exploring anxiety as a feeling,” Jatau says. You can compare it to similar feelings that are easier to understand, such as worry or fear. 

Encourage them to explore their thought process. 

Encourage your child to explore their thought process when they start to feel anxious. Jatau advises asking questions like, “What are some of the things that you think about right before your soccer game? Which of these things make you feel more worried?” This can help show your child how their thoughts are connected to their feelings.

Normalize their feelings.

It’s important to let your child know that anxiety is normal. “By focusing on anxiety as a feeling, you have the opportunity to normalize their experience and share examples of times when you’ve experienced anxiety as well,” shares Jatau. 

How to help your child cope with anxiety

“Helping your child understand anxiety and recognize what’s going on in their head in moments when they feel anxious is a huge first step in helping them cope. When kids are able to identify the thoughts that are making them anxious, this empowers them to learn how to remove and replace those thoughts,” explains Jatau. 

Other techniques used to cope with anxiety may include: 

He adds, “At the end of the day, it’s important to know how anxiety is specifically impacting your child, while keeping in mind that not every coping skill may work for them. You want to continue to try new tools and interventions, and work collaboratively with your child to understand what really helps them cope and feel better. Always continue to check in with them and encourage them to come to you with any concerns they may have.

For more information on how to help your child ease their anxiety, check out our article on natural ways to help calm your child’s anxiety at home.

Additional resources

  • Anxiety, American Psychological Association

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