Children and teens may not recognize that what they have been experiencing is anxiety. Some youth think the way they are feeling and acting is normal or expected. Often, overly studious or perfectionistic youth believe it is reasonable to study for hours on end, to keep their bedroom as neat as a pin, or to wash their hands excessively after every activity. Other youth think there is something “wrong” with them.
Children may focus on the physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g., stomachaches). Teens may think they’re weird, weak, out of control, or even going crazy! These thoughts might make them feel even more anxious and self-conscious. Providing accurate information about anxiety can reduce confusion or shame. Explain that anxiety is a common and normal experience, and it can be managed successfully! You can do this in 3 clear steps. Once your child understands this information, they will feel more motivated to address their anxiety.
Step 1: Encouraging Your child to open up about worries and fears
Start by describing a recent situation where you observed some signs of anxiety in your child.
“Yesterday, when Sarah came over, you seemed very quiet and you just sat beside me. It seemed you might have been a bit nervous about having a visitor in our house. What was that like for you?” Or, “I’ve noticed you’ve been hanging home on weekends, and don’t seem to want to go out like your brother does. What’s up?”
It can sometimes help to share with your child some things you were scared of when you were the same age (especially if you shared the same types of fears), and ask if s/he has any similar worries or fears. You can also describe situations that make other kids his/her age anxious, and gently inquire if this happens to your child too. Finally, you can try being direct by simply asking about what worries your child the most. Being specific can help your child sort through confusing fears and feelings. Support him/her by saying you believe your child, and that having these feelings is okay. Show acceptance of worry thoughts and anxious feelings. If you stay calm, it will also help your child stay calm.
Tip: Does hearing “Don’t worry. Relax!” help you when you’re anxious about something? It probably doesn’t comfort your child much, either. It’s important to acknowledge that your child’s fears are real. Your empathy will increase the chances that your child will accept your guidance and be motivated to work on reducing anxiety through the tools presented on this website.
Step 2: Teaching your child about anxiety
If your child has a specific diagnosis, or if you believe that what your child is experiencing is most like one of the disorder descriptions, go to that page and use the information outlined there to educate and inform your child or teen. Share the facts listed under that disorder. If your child’s symptoms fit with more than one disorder, share all the facts. Then describe the thoughts, physical sensations, emotions, and behaviours that are common to that disorder. Next, present the common situations that can be affected by anxiety, as well as how anxiety looks different at different ages and stages.
Finally, encourage your child to read the personalized stories provided in each disorder. Ask your youth whether any of the stories seem familiar, or sound like his/her experiences. As you present all of this information, encourage your teen to share personal examples. If your teen is reluctant, use your own experiences with anxiety, or recall shared examples through movies, stories, fables, etc.
Step 3: Helping your child recognize anxiety
The third and final step in talking with your teen is to help them understand the 3 ways that anxiety presents: physical feelings, thoughts and actions. Many youth will be familiar with at least 1 area, immediately recognizing the ways that anxiety has affected them. You can use our downloadable resources, including this one on Chester the Cat, to facilitate your discussion.