Talking to Your Child about Anxiety
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, he or she will feel more motivated to address his/her 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 him/her 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 click on the body diagram below to highlight common examples:
In order to keep you safe, your body gets revved up to deal with danger. Click on different parts of the body to find out the cool ways your body changes to protect you from danger.
When your body is preparing itself for action, it makes sure blood and oxygen is pumped to major muscles like your biceps or thighs. This gives you energy and power to strike out at danger or to run away as fast as you can.
When faced with danger, your body tenses up, so you are ready to spring into action. The muscles in your legs tense up so you can run away, fight back by kicking, or hold still.
When faced with danger, your body tenses up, so you are ready to spring into action. The muscles in your arms tense up so you can strike out at danger, pull yourself away, or hold still.
When you are faced with danger, blood from your fingers starts to move towards bigger muscles, like your biceps. These bigger muscles need energy to help you fight or run. Your fingers may feel numb, cold, or tingly as blood moves away from them.
Your body works hard to help you get ready for danger. It takes a lot of energy, which can cause your body to heat up. Sweat from your underarms, palms, or forehead cools down your body.
When you breathe too fast or too deep, you may feel a little lightheaded. This is called hyperventilating. Don't worry. It's not dangerous! Your body is just trying to get more oxygen and blood to your large muscles so you can fight, run, or hold still.
When your body thinks you are in danger, it puts all its resources into protecting you. Other systems in your body (like your digestive system) slow down, because your body thinks giving you energy to deal with the danger is more important than digesting that sandwich you had for lunch. Of course, this means you might get an upset or sore stomach from that sandwich sitting in stomach acid while it waits to be digested once the danger passes.
When you are faced with danger, blood from your toes starts to move towards bigger muscles like your thighs. This is because those bigger muscles need energy to help you fight, run, or freeze. Your toes may feel numb, cold, or tingly as blood moves away from them.
When you are confronted with danger, your pupils get bigger to let in more light so you can better spot the danger. This can make things seem brighter or fuzzier, and you may even see some black spots or other visual effects.
All of these changes are normal. Although sometimes they can feel really uncomfortable, they are NOT dangerous. Nobody has ever become very sick or died from anxiety alone. Remember, anxiety always goes away eventually – even if you don’t do anything.