Talking Helps: Explaining Anxiety to Children

It’s not uncommon for children to experience anxiety without fully understanding what they are feeling. Especially for those who are perfectionists, anxious feelings might mistakenly be accepted as a normal state of being. As parents, you might worry that talking about anxiety could heighten your child’s distress. However, opening up about anxiety can provide relief and foster better coping strategies. This guide is designed to help you approach the topic of anxiety with your child confidently.

Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter. In June, all subscribers of my newsletter will be given a talk about anxiety and if you wish to have the most recent articles about anxiety sent directly to your email. This is the third instalment in a series on the topic.

Understanding Your Child’s Perspective

Children often lack the vocabulary or self-awareness to identify anxiety. They might express anxiety through physical symptoms like stomachaches or through behaviours such as irritability and avoidance. For children who strive for perfection, anxiety might be a frequent companion that they mistakenly believe is just part of being diligent and thorough.

This type of behaviour and circular thinking can worsen symptoms and make your child feel unconfident and unsafe. Simply addressing what anxiety is can not only help your child understand it, but it can also help them feel less ashamed or different. Once they understand what it is, they will also be more open to support and seeking help.

The research on why talking about Anxiety really helps

When you’re experiencing intense feelings — especially fear, aggression, or anxiety — your amygdala is in charge.

anxiety myths

The amygdala, a component of the limbic system, takes charge when your body senses a threat. This is known as the fight-or-flight response (stress response). It processes the danger, formulates an appropriate response, and stores the information in your memory for future encounters. This can cause you to become overwhelmed, and can even override more rational thinking.

Research from UCLA suggests that putting your feelings into words — a process called “affect labelling” — can diminish the response of the amygdala when you encounter things that are upsetting. 

Research shows that areas of the brain associated with emotion and language development are not fully developed until late adolescence. Therefore, children may not understand why they’re feeling a certain way or why they act a certain way. They rely more on emotion than on rational thought due to a developing prefrontal cortex. Very young children will only recently have mastered the skills of walking and talking, and they may not be able to express their anxieties and fears.

Tip: As a parent, it is important for you to recognise that your child may not understand the reasons behind their actions. So, it’s super important that you reflect, ask questions, and figure out how they’re feeling. Ensure they have a wide range of feeling words for emotions and help them see how their actions affect how they feel. Here’s a few tips:

Encourage your child to open up by talking about what you notice

Choose a calm, comfortable time when you’re unlikely to be interrupted. You can start by sharing a personal story of a time when you felt anxious, which shows that everyone experiences these feelings and they are nothing to be ashamed of. Use age-appropriate language to explain what anxiety is, perhaps comparing it to the nervous feeling before a big event like a school play or a sports game.

You could then start by describing a recent situation when you observed your child is anxious. ( Children are often nervous at new social situations and transition times, often when they have to leave you).

When we went to Jenny’s house, I noticed you seemed very quiet and needed to stay with me for quite a long time. I wondered if you were a bit nervous about being in a new house.

I know some children are scared of the dark and have fears at night time……do you have that worry too?

I’ve noticed it seems hard for you to get off to sleep or sleep on your own.

I wondered if you might feel worried, you keep telling me you have a tummy ache before school.

Many children feel worried about being away from… at school; it’s a long time to be away from me, but I know you are fine at school; I’ve asked your teachers.

Validate their feelings

Validation is a powerful tool in helping children navigate their fears. By acknowledging their feelings, you create a safe space for them to express themselves, promoting open communication and trust. Start by listening attentively when your child shares their fears with you. Avoid downplaying or dismissing their concerns, as this may make them feel unheard of or misunderstood. Instead, reassure them that their emotions are important and that you are there to support them.

Tip: Merely using phrases such as “calm down” or “take it easy” to comfort your child may not effectively alleviate their anxiety. It is crucial to avoid diminishing their concerns by assuring them that “everything will be alright”, as this may convey a lack of belief in the validity of their worries.

Then you can move to asking and understanding what their worst fear may be:

“What do you think may happen?”

“What is frightening you?”

“What is the worst thing that might happen?”

Quite often children say “I don’t know”, I would suggest wondering with them (often children think something might happen to their parents, etc).

Teaching your child about anxiety by talking about the stress response

Teaching your children about the stress response and its effects is highly beneficial. It not only appeals to their interest in science, but also helps them understand that experiencing stress is a normal part of being human. reassure your child that feeling anxious is a normal part of life and that everyone experiences it at times. Explain that anxiety is like a warning signal that our bodies use to help us stay safe and alert.

What is the Stress Response?: Start by explaining that the stress response is the body’s way of preparing to deal with a perceived threat or danger. It is often called the “fight-or-flight” response. When we encounter a stressful situation, our bodies release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which trigger physical and emotional changes.

Tip: You can draw a picture of an animal and ask your child to point to where they may feel symptoms

Physical Symptoms of the Stress Response: Discuss the physical symptoms that can occur during the stress response. Explain that these symptoms are the body’s way of preparing to face a challenge. Some common physical symptoms include a faster heart rate, rapid breathing, sweaty palms, tense muscles, and an upset stomach.

Emotional and Mental Effects: Help your child understand that stress can also affect their emotions and thoughts. Older children often experience negative thoughts. It is helpful for you and your child to identify them. We call the negative thinking traps like all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophising, overgeneralisation, jumping to conclusions, should statements (“I should…”). These thought patterns hinder children from moving beyond fear and make them believe nothing will work.

How to manage negative thinking patterns

Explain that stress can make them feel worried, irritable, or overwhelmed. It can also make it harder to concentrate or make decisions.

Triggers for the stress response:

Discuss common triggers for the stress response that your child may encounter, such as starting a new school, taking a test, or participating in a competition. Explain that these situations can cause the body to react with stress to help them stay alert and focused.

Talking to your child about negative thoughts

Please help them understand how negative or challenging thoughts impact on anxiety/

Children often suffer from negative thoughts. As a result, they may:

  • Worry about family’s health and preoccupied with death
  • Suffer from many” what if” thoughts; they often seem unrealistic and occur in the future.
  • Feel they are “getting it wrong “; hence, children “ruminate” over and over on something that occurred during the day at school (e.g. they may have got something wrong in a lesson)
  • Think the worst, “catastrophising” about what may occur.

Help them be a detective of their thoughts. Examples are:

Therefore, it’s good to ask children to identify their thoughts and take back control by “bossing” Mr Worry.

For older children, use the music analogy, “it’s as if the volume is turned up and the anxiety is loud”! These strategies help your child adopt a sense of control and detachment from stress and fears.

Normalise seeking help

If you think your child may have a certain disorder, read my article about it. Use the information there to teach your older child or teenager about it. Use age-appropriate language. Young children will not have the cognitive capacity to fully understand but you can say it. Explain that sometimes, anxiety can become overwhelming, and that it’s okay to seek help from a trusted adult, such as a parent, teacher, or counsellor. Let them know that there are professionals who specialise in helping people manage anxiety and that seeking their support is a positive step.


Therefore, by explaining anxiety to your child in a compassionate and age-appropriate manner, you can help them develop a better understanding of their own emotions. Remember to be patient, supportive, and open to ongoing conversations about anxiety. With your guidance, your child can learn to navigate their anxious feelings and develop healthy coping mechanisms. If you feel out of your depth, seek help, you can contact me for a consultation.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this and prioritising the health of your family. Let’s stop the worry cycle. Please contact me for a consultation about your child’s anxiety. For schools or charities, feel free to reach out to me to arrange a presentation for parents about managing anxiety. With Gratitude Catherine

Related Posts:

How to manage negative thinking patterns

Unravelling Anxiety Disorders

Recognising the key signs of Anxiety

Your child’s emotional brain


Self-soothe box to help calm down

Night time Fears

Separation anxiety or Disorder

Does my child have OCD?

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