How to Explain Anxiety to a Child: A Guide for Parents

As adults, we’ve had time to understand the things that cause us stress and anxiety, so it’s much easier for us to talk about our triggers. However, the prospect can be a little more daunting when considering how to explain anxiety to a child.

As a parent, you want only the best for your child, which can lead to avoiding discussing difficult things with them. Understandably, you might only want to talk to them about things that make them happy — but anxiety is not something to be afraid of.

Explaining to your child what anxiety is, how to recognize it, and what to do can help them better process it and manage it as they get older. It doesn’t need to be this big scary thing that you or your child feel ashamed of. And you can also make managing anxiety fun and enjoyable by planning activities together that help your child reduce their stress and anxiety.

What Does Anxiety Look Like in a Child?

Generally speaking, all children worry, as this is a normal part of growing up. For example, children can feel scared or anxious before the first day of school or before taking a big test, but this is normal.

Some children may become anxious when placed in certain situations. For example, medical anxiety is very common in children due to a fear of doctors or what is going to be done to them when they go to the doctor or the dentist. If your child seems excessively scared when it comes time to go in for a check-up or to have their teeth cleaned, it could be a sign that they have medical anxiety.

However, some children worry or have higher levels of stress than is considered normal or average, which could mean they have an anxiety disorder.

With children, there are any number of things that could be causing their anxiety. For example, if your child is too isolated from their peers, they could have social anxiety. Signs that they are struggling with this include avoiding social interactions, feeling stress during periods of solitude, or dreading occasions associated with social activities.

If the burdens being placed on a child are beyond what is normal for their age and stage of development, they can also develop anxiety. If frequent change has occurred in their life, such as moving, changing schools, losing a loved one, or their parents going through a divorce, this can also trigger anxiety.

Being around a parent who is anxious can also cause children to become anxious themselves. They can also develop anxiety as a result of having to do things that make them scared.

These are just a few of the many things that could trigger anxiety in your child. If you don’t know precisely what is causing their anxiety, it can help to recognize the signs, which can then help you more easily identify what is triggering them.

Signs of anxiety in children can include:

• Racing heart;
• Sweating;
• Shaking;
• Shallow or quick breathing;
• Feeling sick;
• Tense muscles;
• Wobbly legs;
• Scary or negative thoughts;
• Excessive worrying;
• Outbursts or extreme behavior.

Once you recognize the signs of anxiety in your child, you can then start identifying what is causing it. And from there, you can start developing a plan to talk to them about it and help them manage it.

Explaining Anxiety to Your Child

One of the best ways to discuss anxiety with your child is to compare it to an alarm system, like a fire alarm.

Your child likely understands the concept that when they hear a fire alarm, it means danger, and it signals to them that they need to get to safety. Similarly, the brain has an alarm system that sends signals to the body when it thinks danger is near, such as making our hearts beat faster and our palms sweat.

But sometimes, fire alarms go off even when there isn’t any fire. Similarly, sometimes the brain’s alarm goes off when it doesn’t actually need to.

Using this analogy with your child helps them understand that even if their brain is making them think they should be scared or anxious, it’s not actually true. And once they understand this, they can learn to take control and cope with their anxiety.

How to Help Your Child Manage Their Anxiety

Once you know how to explain anxiety to your child and they better understand how to recognize it and what might be causing it, you can start teaching them ways to cope with and manage their anxiety.

1. Help Them Find a Hobby That Offers Them an Outlet

Anxiety doesn’t need to be this big bad scary that children fear. And one way to make dealing with anxiety more fun is to talk to your child about hobbies that they can do to help them feel less stressed and anxious.

There are a number of hobbies that are great for kids that can help them feel calmer and reroute their focus when they are experiencing anxiety. You can get them into sports, help them unleash their inner Picasso with arts & crafts, get them involved in STEM activities like fun science projects, or let them explore more of their favorite games, like chess, charades, or even video gaming.

2. Try Relaxing Activities With Them to Reduce Stress

You can even partake in stress-reducing habits with your child, so you can turn managing anxiety into a bonding experience for the whole family. For example, you can start doing yoga with them, lead them through meditation exercises, or sit down and have a brain-dump session where you write all your thoughts and feelings down on paper.

You can also spend more time outside with your child to combat anxiety. Connecting more with nature can help reduce stress, and it also helps you get more exercise, which also helps the body manage stress and anxiety better. This could be as simple as going on walks or playing at the park more, or going on camping trips and taking hikes.

3. Make Sure They Are Getting Good Sleep and Eating Healthy

Encouraging healthy habits can also help your child manage their stress and anxiety better. Getting good sleep regularly and eating healthy, balanced meals, for example, are not only essential for growth and development, but these habits also play a role in how the body copes with stress.

Unfortunately, kids today often spend too much time in front of a screen, which can disrupt their sleep and even eating habits. Gaming, for example, is okay if it is an outlet for your child, but just make sure you are monitoring their gaming habits and limiting their play time so they aren’t spending too much time in front of a screen.

4. Get Them a Dog

If your child has been begging you for a dog, this might not be a bad idea if they struggle with anxiety. There are many things that having a dog can teach your child, such as responsibility and how to care for others — but pets can also help kids cope with their stress and anxiety. This is why many people often get emotional support animals.

Wrapping Up

Of course, if your child has severe anxiety and the coping tips listed above don’t help, you can always seek professional help. There is nothing wrong with sending your child to therapy and getting them the help they need. What matters is their well-being and doing whatever you can to ensure they lead happier, healthier lives if possible — and if they have anxiety, a therapist can help with that.