Anxiety is a difficult enough disorder to live with on its own. But if you have children in your life – or if your child has anxiety – you may have to face an even tougher situation: learning how to explain anxiety to a child.
Children and Anxiety
Children and preteens experience anxiety differently from adults. Children, especially, are often too young to understand what’s happening. They may be obsessed with their physical symptoms, such as stomachaches or the jitters. Preteens may act out, become irritable, or suddenly start refusing to leave the house.
Because they don’t understand what anxiety is – either because they don’t know what to call it, or they don’t know that their symptoms are related – this may lead to negative feedback loops and strained personal relationships. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge about anxiety may lead the child to become ashamed or confused.
Children who watch someone else go through anxiety are similarly unable to understand what’s going on. For instance, a child who hears their parent snap at them may assume that they did something wrong, rather than the adult is going through an anxious moment. Or, a child who sees their mother spin into a panic attack may not be able to name what’s happening beyond “Mommy is crazy/sad right now!”
3 Ways to Explain Anxiety to a Child
How you explain anxiety to a child, whether it’s to talk about their own or somebody else’s, is incredibly important. For children with anxiety, the process helps them to understand themselves better. Then, they can learn to manage their symptoms better. For children who live with an adult or sibling with anxiety, explaining the symptoms and what they mean can help them empathize. Plus, by promoting understanding and awareness, you equip your child to help themselves and others in need.
In either version of this discussion, there are three basics steps to explain anxiety to a child:
- Encourage the child to be open with their own fears and worries
- Explain what anxiety is, including the symptoms and potential stressors
- Help your child recognize when they or someone they love is anxious
1. Encouraging Children to Open Up
For a child with anxiety, this is a crucial aspect of discussing the subject intelligently. Children don’t inherently know what anxiety is or looks like – that’s why you have to explain it to them.
You can start by telling your children what it looks like when they, or someone they love, is anxious. Don’t be afraid to name specific examples, such as when they want to stay home from school because they’re worried about a test. Or, you can share what to look for when you’re anxious, such as worrying over small details or not wanting to leave the house.
Even if you don’t have anxiety now, it’s crucial to make sure your child knows they’re not alone or weird. Tell them about times in your life when you have been anxious in the past, even in your own childhood.
You can also provoke your children to open up by gently asking what worries them in their lives. If they’re reluctant to start, you can prompt them by letting them know that a lot of kids are afraid of the dark, or maybe something more drastic like mommy and daddy divorcing. By being specific and giving relatable examples, you can spark their memories and let them know that they’re not alone.
It’s also important, especially if your child is the one who experiences anxiety, to let them know that you believe them. Let them know that these feelings are normal and that it’s okay if they don’t know how to handle them. Tell them that you’re there for them anytime to talk or listen – whatever they need.
2. Teach Your Child About Anxiety
When you’re learning how to explain anxiety to a child, this is likely the step you’re concerned with. It’s one thing for your child to tell you what scares them. It’s another entirely to explain to them what causes that fear.
When you’re explaining anxiety to a child, then, following these four points can help:
- Tell them that anxiety is normal, especially in stressful situations such as talking in front of big groups or taking a test
- Explain that anxiety is not dangerous, even when it feels like they can’t breathe, or their hearts are pounding fast
- Anxiety is programmed into our bodies to help us deal with dangerous situations, and is a natural response to stress; for instance:
- The fight-or-flight response either makes us shut down or run away when we encounter dangerous animals
- Our anxious arousal response occurs when something feels dangerous, but isn’t – this can cause jitters, cloudy thinking, and discomfort
- Anxiety is no longer a normal response when it occurs in safe situations, or to such a degree that the person stops going places or participating in activities to avoid the anxiety
3. Recognizing Anxiety
The last step in our “How to Explain Anxiety to a Child” explainer is to help them know when they or someone else is anxious. This involves explaining the signs and symptoms of anxiety. Be sure to tell them that these symptoms come and go, so if they feel anxious one minute and fine the next, they’re not crazy – that’s normal.
Additionally, be sure to cover the three categories of symptoms:
- Physical symptoms, which include tummy aches, fast heartbeats, headaches, sweating, and “the jitters”
- Outward behaviors, which include wanting to stay home from school, avoiding social activities or events, changes in eating or sleep patterns, or refusing to do a presentation in front of a class
- Thought patterns, such as being unable to stop obsessing over a project, worrying about events that haven’t happened yet, or having trouble concentrating
Lastly, the key to how to explain anxiety to a child is: be honest. Anxiety is tough to talk about for a child. Letting them know that it’s normal and that it doesn’t always feel like it’s going to be alright, is just part of the process.