How To Speak To Children With Anxiety: Advice For Parents On What To Say And What Not To Say

'You could say: ‘What do you think would help?’'

When a child is feeling anxious, parents may feel like there’s nothing they can say that will make them feel better.

But there is a lot mums and dads can say that could help ease their child’s worries.

“Many children and young people don’t know what they are feeling when they are anxious, and it can be very frightening and overwhelming,” Emma Saddleton, YoungMinds’ parents helpline manager previously told HuffPost UK.

“Understanding what is going on, what it is called and why it happens, can really help.”

So how do we speak to children who are struggling with anxiety? We spoke to mental health experts, including those from YoungMinds, Anxiety UK and Place2Be, to get their advice on speaking to kids with anxiety.

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Don’t: Forget about non-verbal cues.

When you’re talking to your child about how they’re feeling, remember words aren’t the only important part of the conversation.

“Children pick up on non-verbal queues,” said Saddleton.

“Positive body language, eye contact and physical affection can really help to soothe and comfort a child who is feeling anxious.”

Do: Acknowledge exactly what they’re feeling.

Jonathan Wood, Place2Be’s national manager for Scotland, said: “Acknowledge what seems to be the predominant feeling and offer your support.

“Say something like: ‘I can see that you’re anxious/angry/upset... Would it help to talk about it?’”

Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist and author of ‘The Anxiety Solution’ agreed, adding: “Try to listen to their reply with empathy and understanding. If you need to, read up on other people’s experiences of anxiety so that you can understand what it feels like.

“Acknowledge their feelings so that they feel heard and understood, by saying: ‘I know you’re feeling nervous about going to school’.”

Do: Normalise the anxiety.

Children shouldn’t be made to think that what they are feeling is not “normal”.

“Tell your child: ‘I remember having the same feeling when I was your age’,” Saddleton advised.

“Acknowledge that you can feel worried as an adult (without giving any detail).”

Wood agreed, adding: “Acknowledging your own struggles can be reassuring, you could say: ‘When I get anxious, I find it quite hard to know exactly what the anxiety is about. How about you?’”

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Don’t: Minimise how they’re feeling with phrases.

Anxiety UK’s clinical advisor, Professor Karina Lovell, said parents should avoid phrases including: “Don’t be silly”, “There is nothing to be afraid of”, “Everything will be alright” or “calm down”.

She said: “Comments such as these are unhelpful as they minimise the young person’s anxiety, ignore the young person’s distress completely and don’t offer them any alternatives or strategies to help the young person.”

Do: Use words to demonstrate empathy.

Lovell recommended phrases parents can say that could alleviate their child’s street.

“Comments such as: ‘I can see that this is difficult but let’s do it together’ (this demonstrates empathy and acknowledgement of distress), or ‘That is really helpful that you have told me this’ or ‘When we discussed this before, we agreed that when you felt like this we would do ___’.

“This builds problem solving but also that they have skills to manage this.”

Don’t: Make too many suggestions.

It can be natural to want to solve your child’s problems and tell them what they could do to feel better, but Wood said it’s better to allow them to think.

“Support the young person to find their own solution, rather than making too many suggestions,” he advised. “You could say: ‘What do you think would help?’ or ‘When I felt anxious, this worked for me’.”

If they’re not ready to talk, let them know you are always there to lend a listening ear, by saying something like: “You know I’m always ready to talk if you need to”.

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Do: Encourage and praise your child verbally.

Brotheridge said it’s important to praise your child’s efforts daily when having the usual conversations about their day at school.

“Tell them: ‘You worked really hard today at school’ rather than praising them for being clever,” she said.

“If a child is praised for getting the best marks, for example, they may develop a sense that anything less is a failure. Studies have shown that children praised for achievement or intelligence, rather than effort, were more likely to fear failure and feel anxious about setbacks.”

Do: Explain the physical sensations of anxiety.

Conversations about your child’s anxiety should involve practical advice on how they can alleviate some of their feeling of anxiety.

“Let them know that physical sensations such as a racing heart are, although uncomfortable, not dangerous and it can’t hurt them,” said Brotheridge.

“Explain that it’s caused by adrenaline and that their body is confused and thinks there is a danger, when there isn’t. Let them know that the feeling will pass on its own.

“Teaching them simple breathing exercises can help. Ask them to put their hands on their belly and to push their belly out when they breathe in, as if they are blowing up a balloon. Taking deep belly breaths will help them to calm the fight or flight response.”

For more information:

YoungMinds: A charity supporting children and young people’s mental health. They offer a free, confidential parents helpline.

Place2Be: Children’s mental health charity providing in-school counselling support and expert advice.

Anxiety UK: National charity working to to relieve and support those living with anxiety and anxiety-based depression by providing information and support.

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