Talking to Your Children About Anxiety

Health Writer

It is normal for children to worry. Most worry about the first day of school, taking an important test, or speaking in front of the class. Sometimes, this worry is good. It can help to motivate us to do better and try harder. It can alert us to danger.

But sometimes, our children worry so much it begins to interfere with their daily life. For example, if your child worries so much about doing well in school that he is getting stomach aches each morning or is refusing to go to school, there might be a need to talk with a doctor or have an assessment for an anxiety disorder.

As adults, we understand the difference between normal and excessive worrying, but children may not. They may assume their worry and fears are normal and are telling them to avoid certain situations.

It is up to us, as parents, to explain the difference between normal worry and an anxiety disorder to a child. Giving them the knowledge and understand can help empower them to overcome their fears, after all, you can't overcome something when you don't know it is a problem to begin with.

Jimmy is going into the 4th grade. His family has recently moved and he is starting a new school. He is nervous and scared, he doesn't know anyone. It is normal to be anxious about this situation and his parents tell him it is normal to be scared, but that everything will be okay. Jimmy, however, can't stop worrying, every day he thinks about the new school and every day his fear grows. Soon, Jimmy's stomach starts hurting, he is getting headaches and feels shaky, sometimes he feels like he can't breathe.

He remembers that his parents told him being scared was normal, so he thinks the fear he is feeling is reasonable. He doesn't understand the difference between being nervous and being excessively worried. By the time the first day of school comes, Jimmy is so scared he doesn't want to go to school and when he does, he feels ill the entire day, he can't talk to anyone and sits by himself. He comes home miserable.

Jimmy never bothered to tell his parents how intense his fears were. Like most children, he assumed his level of fear was appropriate. Had Jimmy talked with his parents about his fears and that he was having physical symptoms, his parents could have helped him. The New York University Child Study Center explains that "With knowledge comes confidence, a sense of control and optimism in being able to successfully meet a challenge."

Some of their suggestions are:

Use Information Appropriate for Your Child's Age

Young children learn best when given short, simple statements. They need to know that their feelings of anxiety are not their fault or they are not bad because they have fears.

Elementary age children need specific facts. For example, you can explain specific ways of knowing the difference between normal worry and anxiety. You can explain that everyone becomes nervous but if physical symptoms begin, such as stomach aches, then he should come and talk to you. In addition, children this age understand steps to take. You can explain, when you begin to feel nervous, take slow, shallow breaths and focus on something relaxing or happy.

For teens and adolescents, parents can talk more in abstract ideas. At this age, teens can understand how anxiety plays a role in their life, the long-term aspects of anxiety disorder and the importance of treatment.

Find out your child's perspective

As parents, we may see the problem differently than the child sees it. In the example of Jimmy, he could see the situation as being out of his control. He was anxious, felt sick and didn't want to go to school. He may not have understood that there were ways he could feel less nervous. He may have felt he needed to feel sick, that this was "normal." By learning how Jimmy felt, his parents have more information to talk with Jimmy. They could have addressed that there were specific strategies to help him reduce his fear, giving him the knowledge and power to change his thought and therefore reduce his fear. No matter what age your child is, you can better help if you take the time to understand how he feels.

Continue the conversation

Overcoming anxiety doesn't occur all at once. Talking to your child once is a beginning but in order to teach strategies and ways of coping with anxiety, it is important to have many discussions.

If your child is going through an assessment and treatment for anxiety, he will probably have questions throughout the process. Be prepared to answer questions as they come up. Your child will feel more in control if he knows he can come to you. If this is your first time dealing with an anxiety disorder, you may not know all the answers. Be sure to be honest and let your child know that you aren't sure but together you can talk about the issue with your child's doctor.

Enlist the help of the mental health professionals

If your child is seeing a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, part of your child's treatment should be helping him understand anxiety disorders. Keep track of the questions your child has in between doctor's visits and ask the mental health professional to address these issues during the visit. Treatment should include not only learning strategies to manage symptoms but understanding anxiety and learning to cope with the diagnosis.

Using books and resources

There are many great books to help children and teens manage their symptoms of anxiety and learn relaxation and coping strategies. Next week, I'll give you suggestions on what books are available.

See more helpful articles:

How Children Develop Fears and Anxiety Disorders

Social Anxiety in Children

Signs of Anxiety in Children


Helping Your Anxious Child-A Step by Step Guide for Parents, Rapee, Spence, Cobham and Wignall, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA, 2000.

"Talking with Kids About ADHD, Anxiety and Learning Disorders", March/April 2000, New York University Child Study Center