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How to Explain Anxiety to a Child: A Guide

Are you looking for help with how to explain anxiety to a child? You can learn about some valuable techniques for teaching kids about mental health.

The CDC estimates that 9.4% of children aged 3-17 had an anxiety diagnosis between 2016 and 2019. Such things can be hard to express to someone so young, and so it can be difficult to know where to start. Would you know where to begin in such a situation, or do you find yourself needing help now?

Below, we explain some of the basics of how to explain anxiety and other mental health disorders to a child. As you learn more, you can put these steps into practice and help work out if your child might need to talk to a professional. If so, we offer advice on that at the end of the article.

Keep Words Simple

When answering questions like "What is anxiety?", try to use familiar words for the child. Begin any conversation by trying to offer very simple definitions for more complex concepts. This way, the child can start to understand things over time.

As such, instead of explaining how anxiety, or any mental health issue, is down to brain chemistry, you could instead suggest:

"Anxiety is when you start to worry too much about something, or you get scared even when you know the thing will not happen."

Try to use words that you use every day with them. Even the word "anxiety" itself might be new to them, so when not defining it try to use words like "worry" or "fear". Instead of discussing "mental health", you could talk about "how your feelings affect you".

You can even compare the feeling with experiences they have had before if you have trouble with your words. Suggest it is like a time when the child was scared that you remember.

Simplify Complex Ideas

Many anxiety symptoms might be very complex. While they do not defy explanation, to a very young mind, they might. 

As such, try to separate any hard ideas into a few more steps. First, try to identify the key parts of what you are trying to put across, and go through each one step by step.

Some of the ideas that might help to break down a hard subject include:

  • Describing feelings. You can start by talking about the fact anxiety appears because of tough feelings. You can also use some examples of the feelings the child might have felt in the past.
  • Helping them understand triggers. Allow the child to understand that specific things might trigger someone. Times the child may have felt this could include being alone without their parents at school or getting lost in a crowded place.
  • Bringing up physical sensations. Sometimes anxiety can cause someone to feel an upset stomach, or like their heart is beating too fast. Try to explain to the child how these things are normal for someone who is anxious so they can recognize and talk about it.
  • Suggesting how someone might worry. It is important to explain what types of worries people might have, so a child understands they are not alone in them. Tell them that anxious people have very strong concerns that something bad might happen, or that they might mess up or get embarrassed.
  • Normalizing Everything. You want the child to come out of the conversation knowing they can talk if they feel these things. So, try to help them understand that asking about it is ok and that sometimes people feel these things, even if they need help with them.

Validate Their Concerns

You need the child to understand that their feelings about a situation are valid. This is true regardless of if they are the person who might receive anxiety treatment, or if it is someone else they know. Help them know that it is ok to feel worried or scared and that you are there to support them.

Remind them that many people feel those things and that sometimes they are normal, but other times people need a little help to get past them. This helps them comprehend the idea that it is not something to be scared of talking about, and might help them reach out to you in the future.

Use Stories and Analogies

Children will often learn much easier when offered stories that relate to their situation. You can even use an analogy that relates to their life to help them step into someone else's shoes.

If you have the tools available, consider using puppets or pictures to help them see a representation of the problem. You can give each one a personality and show it how it responds to the anxiety in itself or other puppets. If you or someone else is investigating anxiety treatments, this can help the child know what they can expect from them.

Ensure the Child Understands

As you talk to your child, check in with them after you go over most concepts. Ensure that they understand what they have heard. One of the best ways to do this is by asking them questions or letting them know it is ok for them to ask you anything about the topic.

You could even get them to describe what anxiety is for you. This allows them to use their own vocabulary to put forward the concept. Then, if it is obvious there is something they have missed or do not understand, you can reiterate what they need to know.

Another good way to do this is to ask for examples or even role-play a situation. Children engage well with enacting a role they have come to understand, as it helps them empathize with something.

As such, you could ask them to pretend to be someone with anxiety and ask what they feel. Or, you could ask them to pretend to be a carer and talk to you as if you had mental health issues. You can then guide them in this play to help them learn about what therapy is like.

Encourage Them to Express Themselves

Make sure your child knows they can talk about things and ask questions at any time. This can often allow them to explore the subject at their own pace and expand their understanding of mental health.

Sometimes this may seem inappropriate, as children do not have the same comprehension of social etiquette that we do. As such, their roleplay might go into areas you deem uncomfortable. If that is the case, use it as a way to teach them how society should interact with people who have mental health issues.

Remember to offer positive reinforcement to the child when they do understand things. Then, when they get things wrong, be more gentle. You want to encourage them to explore, not make them uncomfortable to do so.

Different Children Need Different Methods

Children often come to an understanding of mental health problems such as anxiety at different speeds. This could be for several different reasons. Examples might include their development, emotional state, or even cultural background.

Because of these varied needs, you need to attempt to work out how every child can learn what these things mean on an individual basis. The same methods will not work on them all.

Expect each child to move at a different pace, and base what you try to teach on each child's personal experiences. Using examples from their life can help with this, as it grounds the explanation in what each child has memories of.

You could also try different teaching styles. Some children prefer to create to communicate, while others like to talk about things. As mentioned above, many children learn through play, so joining in with this can also help you break through learning barriers.

If a child has special needs or attention disorders, this may take more time. As such, be patient, and expect to need to repeat yourself no matter which child you try to communicate with.

How to Talk About Mental Health in General

When you start talking to your child about anxiety, you may find it useful to talk about mental health in general. This has several benefits; for example, often anxiety can lead to depression or other issues. At the same time, it also allows them to understand that anxiety is only one of a larger array of issues they could become aware of.

As you start down this path, it might be useful to interact with a professional in the field of child therapy who can help keep you on the right track. This way, you can have the assurances you need that you are teaching your child the right facts.

Help With How to Explain Anxiety to a Child

Now that you understand some of the basics of how to explain anxiety to a child, you should be able to move on to more difficult topics. Still, you are not a trained professional, so if things start to get difficult, this is where we come in.

If you need someone to learn if your child is having trouble and explain what it means to them, we can help. Our trained specialists can engage with your child and learn if they need someone to talk to about their feelings. Give us a call today to find out more.

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