How to Talk to Little Kids About Anxiety
When young children are chronically anxious, parents sometimes struggle to find the best words to help calm their kids. It doesn’t help that anxious little kids tend to hover around mom or dad, cling, ask the same question repeatedly, and engage in other anxious behaviors.
“Don’t worry about the little things” and “it’s no big deal” might seem like solid advice in the moment, but for little worriers these statements can actually exacerbate anxiety. When anxious children feel dismissed, they tend to worry even more.
The best things parents can do are label it, explain it, empathize, and teach strategies to reduce anxious feelings.
I always tell kids that using the word “anxiety” is a step toward learning to cope with it. They don’t have to hide what they’re going through. Feeling anxious is hard – they need support and understanding!
Talk to your child about her brain and what happens when anxiety shifts from normal (ex: I better ask an adult to help me cross this busy street) to elevated (ex: It’s never safe to cross streets.)
I find it helps to tell kids that everyone has a worry center in the brain. The worry center reminds us to look both ways and turn off the stove. It can actually be quite helpful! But sometimes it gets overactive and worries about lots of things all at once. When this happens, worries shift to anxiety and we feel uncomfortable a lot of the time. Asking for help is a good idea.
Explain anxious responses.
When kids feel anxious, they tend to have three different responses within their bodies. Talking about how anxiety manifests helps kids recognize what’s happening.
- Physical feelings: Anxiety can take a lot of physical forms, but many kids report stomachaches, headaches, muscle cramps, feeling dizzy, and racing heart.
- Thoughts: Anxiety can cause your mind to race with intrusive thoughts. When this happens, the worry center sends all kinds of scary messages and makes it seem like something isn’t safe.
- Actions: Our brains are wired to go into fight or flight mode when we feel anxious. Sometimes we try to get away from a trigger, other times we freeze up, and sometimes we try to fight through it. When the worry center sends out an anxiety warning, our muscles tense up, we start to sweat, and we breathe faster. All of these things happen because our body is preparing to get through the anxious feelings.
Helping kids work through anxiety can be tricky. On the one hand, you don’t want to dismiss their feelings. On the other hand, you want them to know that they can handle these feelings and get through it. It can be hard to find the best words in response to anxious thoughts.
I always encourage parents to use phrases like, “I know you’re scared and that’s okay. I’m here to help you through it.” This conveys understanding while also sending the message that your child will get through the anxious feelings.
Anxious kids need to learn how to calm their anxious responses. Encourage your child to blow imaginary bubbles or to blow up an imaginary balloon to practice deep breathing. This calms the muscle tension, increased heart rate, and dizzy feeling that anxious kids experience.
Another great tool is self-talk. I encourage young children to boss back their anxiety by using statements like, “No way, worries! You’re not the boss of me! I can handle this.” When kids learn to talk back to their worries, they regain control over their emotions.