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. stomach aches). 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.
Ask what worries him or her the most. You may have to prompt younger children by offering an example such as: “I know some kids are scared of ___, do you have that fear too?” When your child expresses anxiety or worry, offer reassurance by saying you believe him or her, and that having those feelings is okay. Remember, your child will take cues from you.
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/ resources you practice.
Step 2: Teaching your child about anxiety
Present the common situations that can be affected by anxiety, as well as how anxiety looks different at different ages and stages. Encourage your child to read this information or go through it with them. As you present all of this information, encourage your child or 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.
Four important points to communicate to your child:
1. Anxiety is normal. Everyone experiences anxiety at times. For example, it is normal to feel anxious when on a roller-coaster, or before a test. Some teens may appreciate some facts about how common anxiety problems are.
For example, “Did you know that one-in-seven children under 18 will suffer from a real problem with anxiety?”
2. Anxiety is not dangerous. Though anxiety may feel uncomfortable, it doesn’t last long, is temporary, and will eventually decrease! Also, most people cannot tell when you are anxious (except those close to you such as your parents).
3. Anxiety is adaptive. Anxiety helps us prepare for real danger (such as a bear confronting us in the woods) or for performing at our best (for example, it helps us get ready for a big game or speech). When we experience anxiety, it triggers our “fight-flight-freeze” response and prepares our bodies to defend themselves.
For instance, our heart beats faster to pump blood to our muscles so we have the energy to run away or fight off danger. When we freeze, we may not be noticed, allowing the danger to pass. This response is also called “anxious arousal”. Without anxiety, humans would not have survived as a species!
How you can explain the Fight-Flight-Freeze response to a child:
“Imagine you are hiking in the woods and you come across a bear. What is the first thing you would do? You may run away from the bear, or you may simply freeze. Another reaction is to yell and wave your arms to appear big and scary. There are three ways humans react to danger: fight, flee, or freeze. When we are anxious, we react in one of these ways, too. We may run away or avoid situations that make us anxious. Or we may freeze, such as when our minds go blank and we can’t think clearly. Or we may fight, get angry and lash out at people. Can you think of some ways you may fight, flee, or freeze because of anxious feelings?”
How to explain “anxious arousal”:
Sometimes when we sense something is dangerous or threatening, we automatically go into a state called “anxious arousal”. This can happen when there is a real danger, but also when something simply feels dangerous, but really isn’t, such as giving an oral presentation in class, or…(give an example of something relevant to your child). Anxious arousal makes you feel jittery, on edge, and uncomfortable. It may also make it hard to think clearly. This feeling can become overwhelming enough that anxious people stop doing things or going places that make them feel anxious. Do you think this is happening to you?
4. Anxiety can become a problem when our body reacts as if in danger in the absence of real danger. A good analogy is that it’s like the body’s smoke alarm.
“An alarm can help protect us when there is an actual fire, but sometimes a smoke alarm is too sensitive and goes off when there isn’t really a fire (e.g. burning toast in toaster). Like a smoke alarm, anxiety is helpful when it works right. But when it goes off when there is no real danger, then we may want to fix it.”
Step 3: Helping your child recognize anxiety
The third and final step in talking with your child is to help him/her understand the 3 ways that anxiety presents.
Explain to your child the three parts of anxiety: thoughts (what we say to ourselves); physical feelings (how our body responds); and behaviours (what we do or our actions).
USE AGE APPROPRIATE EXAMPLES
A good way to describe the interconnection of these parts is to draw a triangle with arrows
e.g. Tummy ache, headache, heart racing
e.g. “What if mom doesn’t come home?”
e.g. Looking for mom, staying home from school
Being a Detective: Recognizing Physical Symptoms
To help your child recognize physical symptoms, draw a sketch of a body and ask your child to identify where he or she feels anxiety in the body.
Prompt your child, if necessary, with an example: “When I feel anxious, I get butterflies in my tummy, and I get a big lump in my throat. What happens when you feel anxious?”
Teens may rather just talk about it, or identify their own symptoms from a list of “typical” physical symptoms.
If age-appropriate, ask your child to come up with a name for anxiety (e.g. Mr./ Mrs Worry). Refer to your child’s anxiety with this new name, particularly in terms of “bossing back” anxiety (e.g. “It’s just the Mrs worry talking. I don’t have to listen!”).
Older children or teens may respond better to a music analogy, such as that the volume of their anxiety is “turned up” a bit louder than other kids. They simply need to learn to turn down the volume.
These strategies help your child adopt an observer role when dealing with anxiety, giving them a greater sense of control.