How to explain anxiety to children in six simple steps


Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Priory Group, outlines six strategies for helping children understand, accept and overcome their anxieties

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues seen in children. A child can feel anxious at different times as they grow up. They may worry about sleeping in the dark and having nightmares, or feel anxious about starting school, doing tests or completing their homework.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Group, outlines six ways you can support your child and allow them to understand, accept and overcome their worries.

1. Take them back to their survival instincts
Our bodies have evolved to develop built-in survival instincts. Out in the wild millions of years ago, these instincts were incredibly helpful to our ancestors when reacting quickly to a sudden threat. This is the ‘fight or flight’ mode our body switches to when we feel anxious and threatened. This was useful in the past, but in today’s world your child might be seeing a threat where there isn’t’ one – in the classroom, for example.

Telling your child a story about someone running away from a tiger or another predator in the jungle is a great way to engage them on the subject of anxiety. It all helps to explain that feelings of anxiety are normal, natural and have proven useful when in danger.

2. Explain what happens when we are anxious
Understanding how our bodies change when we perceive something scary is a big part of explaining the complexities of anxiety to children. Discuss common symptoms in terms they can understand, like:

— Our brain focuses on getting away
— Our body starts to sweat
— Our heart beats faster and our breathing gets quicker
— We might get butterflies in our stomach or feel sick

Explain that these changes are all useful if we’ve been confronted by a tiger in the jungle, as they help us to run fast and get away. However, these feelings aren’t useful if they’re happening when we’re in a situation that we don’t actually have to be scared of, like going to school or going to bed in the dark. That’s why we have to learn the difference and learn how to manage our feelings.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg of Priory Group

3. Ask them when these feelings arise
Identifying what is causing anxiety in your child is important, as it will help inform how and when you support them. Be sure to ask them when they typically feel scared or anxious, and see if a pattern is emerging. Common times when children may get anxious include in the mornings before school, before attending an event such as a birthday party, or at night when the lights are turned out.

4. Be empathetic towards their feelings
Empathy should be at the heart of every discussion you have with your child about anxiety. Listen to why they’re anxious and use the other tips here to explain the process of anxiety to help them stay calm the next time the issue arises.

Use your own experiences as often as you can. Describe a time when you’ve felt exactly the same as they have, normalising their feelings and easing their concerns.

5. Provide evidence that they will be okay
To help them push past their anxiety when it arises, give them lots of examples that show them that they’re capable of getting through it. For example, remind them of the time they went into school on their first day knowing no-one, but when you let go of their hand, they carried on bravely and never looked back.

6. Don’t allow them to avoid the cause of their anxiety
Wherever possible, try not to let your child avoid the situation that is causing them anxiety. Help them with coping strategies and give them the chance to see that they can deal with their anxiety. Avoiding the situation will only reinforce anxiety and leave it with room to grow.

Know that if your child’s symptoms persist or worsen, anxiety disorders in children are very treatable, especially if they are managed at an early stage. People often hope that childhood anxiety will just go away, but this isn’t always the case and it’s possible for it to get worse. Anxiety treatment will help your child to develop a toolbox to deal with their anxiety, meaning that if they find worries popping up in the future, they will be able to tackle each concern one at a time, and move past their anxiety.