Tips for Talking About Anxiety with Your Child

Anxiety is high among adults given this election season, and this can sometimes trickle down to their children who soak up feelings like a sponge. During this time it may feel impossible to find time to talk about these difficult emotions with your kids. So here are quick tips for talking about anxiety with your child.

Before you sit down and talk with your child about their feelings, check in with yourself.  Check in with your body. Do you experience stress through muscle tension, headaches, stomach aches, etc.? Do you tend to retreat or do you talk out your feelings and need to vent? What have your thoughts have been telling you? How do they feel about about past, present, and future? Do you feel positive, negative, neutral, or a combination of two or more experiences? Lastly, check in with yourself about ways in which you can feel more in control of your anxiety. Do you like to exercise, call a friend or family member, or get creative with arts?

Now that you have set aside some time to process your own anxiety, you will feel more prepared to confidently have a discussion about anxiety with your child.

First off, it’s important to describe to your child that anxiety is a natural form of stress. Anxiety can be both beneficial and troublesome.  It’s a normal human experience that serves a purpose: It’s an alarm system that goes off whenever we perceive danger. The alarm includes physical sensations (e.g., fast heartbeat, dizziness, tingly hands, sweating) called the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. This alarm response is caused by adrenaline and other stress hormones that prepare the body for threats. To be most effective, it happens instantly and the thinking brain (the cortex) doesn’t start thinking until a few seconds later. Then, the cortex sends a message to the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response part of the brain that all is clear and it’s okay to calm down.

Once your child understands the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response, you can talk about how anxiety can get out of control sometimes. The problem happens when the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response part of the brain takes over and the thinking brain (the cortex) gets confused, lost in the mix, or overwhelmed, making it difficult for the cortex to do it’s job. This can lead to panic attacks, generalized anxiety, social anxiety and other challenges. That’s why it’s important to develop the cortex’s ability to take control and calm the nervous system. The wonderful news is that the cortex can easily learn these tips because the cortex naturally wants to be in charge.

Lastly, it’s time to talk about and practice ways to get the cortex back in power, with the most important tip being that practicing when not feeling anxious or stressed will help the brain more easily put these techniques into place when it matters most. It won’t be there for you if you don’t practice it at other times. One of the most effective methods for reducing anxiety is developing mindfulness otherwise known as awareness:

  • An easy way to practice this is to label things that you see in your environment. Try this without attaching any feelings or ideas to it. So you can slowly say, “Green chair, purple sweater, beige bag…” This teaches the mind to notice the environment without experiencing an emotional reaction. This can be done with any of the senses (touching, smelling, feeling, hearing, seeing).
  • Another technique is to practice deep breathing techniques. For three minutes practice with your child taking deep breaths in through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Do this with one hand on the chest and one hand on the belly.
  • A third technique is practicing understanding thoughts to be clouds that float through the air and quickly change over time. Observe how quickly thoughts can alter your mood and how changing your thoughts to something positive can in effect produce more positive feelings.

These were just a few tips for talking about anxiety with your child. Contact us for a free phone consultation to learn more about mindfulness and awareness. We offer therapy, counseling, consultation and psychological testing. We serve families in San Diego North County, including Carlsbad, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe, Escondido and surrounding cities.

About Susan Gehrig, PhD

Susan Gehrig, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and founder of Paradox Psychological Services located in Carlsbad. She has a passion for supporting the wellbeing of children and teens. Her expertise is in child mindfulness and self-compassion, cognitive behavioral therapy, and child development. Dr. Gehrig provides psychoeducational testing and therapy services to help build a plan for success. Paradox provides services for families of San Diego North County and greater areas.

1 comment on “Tips for Talking About Anxiety with Your Child

  1. I appreciate your tip to make sure your child understands that anxiety is a natural form of stress before you talk about how anxiety can get out of control sometimes. I also like what you said about labeling things in your environment in order to notice the environment without experiencing an emotional reaction in order to ease anxiety. I’ve heard that it’s most effective to see a psychologist who specializes in anxiety when anxiety gets out of control, would you agree with that?

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