Explaining Anxiety to Younger Children

by Jessica Magenheimer, M.A., L.M.F.T.

In today’s “go, go, go” culture, anxiety, and stress seem to be a typical part of adult life. Indeed, anxiety is a normal emotion, but for younger children, feeling anxious may be a more confusing and even frightening experience. Kids may not understand or have the words for what they’re experiencing and may believe there is something terribly wrong with them. Given that anxiety disorders are currently the most commonly experienced childhood mental disorders (as many as one in five children meet criteria for a diagnosis), it’s all the more crucial that parents and caregivers are equipped to identify and communicate with their kids about anxiety.

Describing Anxiety to Preschool and Elementary School-Aged Children

The first step in supporting younger children with anxiety is learning to identify when it is happening. This can be difficult, given that symptoms of anxiety can manifest differently from child to child: one might complain of stomach aches, whereas another might cry when dropped off at school or left in a dark room. Parents should be vigilant for signs of shyness, deviations from a child’s normal behavior (such as avoiding situations or people) or recurring, vague physical complaints.

Parents can and should gently ask questions about their children’s fears and worries on a regular basis. Approach the situation calmly and with curiosity, speaking from what’s observed rather than making assumptions or interpretations. Use phrases like “I’ve noticed that _______. Can we talk about that together?”

The experience of anxiety is threefold: it can occur in thoughts, feelings and in body sensations. While younger children may not have the language or abstract thinking ability to talk about their thoughts, they can communicate their feelings (using words like “scared,” “nervous” or “worried”). They can be taught to connect sensations in their head, chest, and stomach to anxiety. Kids may benefit from creative or imaginative approaches to describing how anxiety affects their bodies, such as visualizing themselves tightly wound up like a spring or with shoulders up to their ears (a demonstration from a parent or trusted loved one can make this clearer).

Encourage, Normalize, Validate: Talking to Children About Anxiety

Once anxiety is identified, parents can make space for conversation with their children by following these steps:

1. Encourage: Advise the child to share his or her fears and worries when they arise. Create a safe space where talking about worries is not a big deal, and asking questions is celebrated.
2. Normalize: Reassure the child with statements like “A lot of other people are scared of _____ too, and it’s normal.” If the parent has experienced a similar worry or anxiety in general, that can be shared in return. Remain calm and open to the child’s experience.
3. Validate: Underscore that the parent believes what the child is saying and that it makes sense. It’s helpful to say something like “I understand why you’d feel that way” or “If it were me I think I would feel the same way.” Children with anxiety can feel isolated or alienated; understanding that they are not alone goes a long way.

At the same time, parents should be careful not to feed into a child’s anxiety by allowing avoidance to continue. For example, if a child experiences social anxiety, the parent may be tempted to respond by never taking the child to a peer’s birthday party. While this reduces the worry about being around others at the moment, it reinforces the child in thinking that she cannot manage her anxiety.

Moreover, it reduces opportunities for the child to develop greater comfort in social situations. Parents can prompt gentle, gradual exposure to feared situations while offering reassurance, conversation, and empathy to support the child’s growth. If the fear continues to interfere with a child’s functioning despite parental interventions, consulting a mental health professional who specializes in treating children may be helpful.

Provide Support and Tools to Decrease Anxiety

Parents can serve as powerful models for their anxious children by demonstrating and openly practicing anxiety management skills. All of these suggestions are modifiable and effective for any age.

1. Deep breathing: Advise the child to imagine a balloon in his belly; when they inhale the balloon gets filled with air. Conversely, exhaling lets air out of the balloon, and their bellies get flatter. This form of breathing activates the diaphragm, which allows the brain’s natural “calm-down” chemicals to kick in.
2. Grounding exercises: Direct the child to focus on the sensation of her bare feet on the ground to feel connected to the Earth, or (if verbal) to look around and name three things she sees, hears and smells.
3. Physical activity: Movement is particularly good for the muscle tension that accompanies stress, and it can be fun to boot. Kids can stretch their limbs, wiggle around or have a full-on dance party to dismiss the jitters.
4. Mindfulness: Children of preschool age or older can be taught short meditation practices (often focusing on the breath or on various parts of the body, or the visualization of a calming scene). Tech-savvy kids can make use of the many available mindfulness apps for mobile phones, with the supervision of their caregivers.

Once children have a handle on the above techniques and feel comfortable talking about anxiety, they can get in on the action as well. Kids may be able to recognize anxiety in friends or schoolmates and often feel empowered and in control of their worries when they can share the tools they’ve learned. 

A Final Word on Self-Care

For parents and children alike, the value of a regular and intentional self-care routine cannot be overstated. Irregular sleep, poor nutrition, a jam-packed schedule and lack of activity can all contribute to and intensify anxiety, so taking steps to correct these problems if present is vital. Families might consider instituting a daily check-in of Brillia’s five pillars, both to instill and follow healthier habits and to combat anxiety in a frazzled world.

Jessica Magenheimer is a freelance writer and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She treats mental health concerns and addiction utilizing Dialectical Behavior Therapy and other evidence-based modalities and is employed in both private practice and treatment center settings. In addition, she is the founder of the Sensitive Love Coach, where she empowers Highly Sensitive People and others with dating anxiety to reclaim their agency and enjoyment of the dating process.

References:

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954816/#ref2
2. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10826-017-0772-y
3. https://adaa.org/finding-help/helping-others/children
4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
5. https://discoverbrillia.com/blogs/stories/mindfulness-apps-for-kids-with-anxiety
6. https://discoverbrillia.com/pages/five-pillars


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