Helping Our Child Understand Their Anxiety

It can be agony for parents watching our children suffering from anxiety: their tears at night, their paralysing shyness, their distress at facing common challenges.

We feel their pain, and sometimes we are frustrated and embarrassed by their apparent lack of courage.  Telling them off for their anxiety is unkind, unfair and worse than ineffective. Adding shame and guilt on top of their anxiety is probably just going to make it worse.

We can sometimes see that our child is using techniques to control their own anxiety: retreating into games or fantasy, creating ‘rules’ in an OCD way, structuring their world to avoid their unpleasant emotions. We might see procrastination and avoidance.  Pick a time to speak with them. Often, ‘the best time to deal with a problem is when it is not a problem’. Explaining anxiety, and ways to cope with it, is best done at times when they are relaxed and calm, and not when they are in the middle of a brain-scrambling panic.

We can help our children know what anxiety is.  Fear can be a useful emotion: it gets our bodies ready for handling dangerous situations by pumping adrenaline into us, making us ready for ‘fight or flight’. Fear often leads to wise caution, too, keeping us safe by making us avoid real dangers. But anxiety is when that emotion of fear rises up in us without good reason and in an uncomfortable and unhelpful way. 

Why are they anxious? Maybe there was some trauma – the Canterbury earthquakes caused a lot of anxiety. Maybe some event or situation in their life might be obvious to you, maybe it may need the help of a counsellor to process. But it can also just be part of their ‘wiring’: genes make some kids more predisposed to anxiety. There can be anxious periods that only last a while, sometimes it can be a life-long battle.

It helps to tell children that anxiety often does not tell us the truth. Our anxious feelings are not reliable guides to actual danger. It can help to learn the phrase, “The problem is not what I feel it is.” They might think the problem is having to speak in front of the class, but the real problem is their anxiety is creating dreadful emotions about it. They might think the problem is dangers hiding in the darkness in their bedroom, but the real problem is their anxious imagination. Another useful phrase is, “My anxiety doesn’t know any more than I do.” Their anxiety may tell them the bridge they are on is going to collapse, or that there are robbers outside the house. They need to know that anxiety is not reliable ‘danger radar’.  Adult reassurance will not always take away their anxious emotions but, hopefully, they will start to understand that their feelings and reality do not always line up.