This article was contributed by Priory Group

Priory is an independent provider of behavioural care in the UK. It is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care services – which together support the needs of more than 30,000 people every year.



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Helping your child to manage anxiety

Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford, offers advice on how to help your child understand anxious feelings.

All children worry from time to time. As they grow, they have to face new experiences and challenges, whether they’re starting school or taking exams, that may cause them anxiety. They may also see or experience things online -  Facebook posts and YouTube videos - that worry them. 

You may feel concerned about the levels of worry your child is experiencing. If so, it’s helpful to be able to explain anxiety, so as to help them understand what’s happening to them and why, as well as where they can turn for support. 

Explaining anxiety to your child

Anxious feelings can be very frightening for your child if they don’t understand them (and for you to witness if you don’t know how to help). Here are some simple ways to talk to them about why they feel like this, which may help reassure them.

Why do we get anxious?

When we see something alarming, our brain understands that something frightening is about to happen and quickly sends instructions to our body to get ready to move away fast.

What are the signs our body is anxious?

In moments of fear, our body will pump blood to our muscles, heart and lungs, the parts we need to move quickly. Our heart beats faster and breathing quickens. As our body focuses on getting ready to move fast, it pays less attention to parts we don’t need in that moment of flight. We stop digesting food, which can cause us to feel sick or even be sick, and we stop being able to think as clearly.

Why do people feel like this?

Explain how these feelings can be very useful in dangerous situations: they allow us to react and get away quickly. But people can also get these anxious feelings when dangers don’t exist - at school, for example. Such feelings can cause us to try to avoid these situations when we don’t actually need to. 

What should a child do when they feel anxious?

Let your child know that they can always talk to you or another parent, carer, or teacher. Explain that you will be able to help them - they don’t have to carry on dealing with their anxious thoughts and feelings alone.

Helping your child when they become anxious

When your child becomes worried, listen to what makes them feel this way. For example, they may be troubled by thoughts that they won’t make any friends, or that their friends won’t be at a place where they have to go.

Make sure they know that anxiety exists for a useful purpose: it’s there to protect them from real dangers. They may be seeing dangers where they don’t necessarily exist. Try to boost their confidence and let them know you believe they can cope and you have faith they’ll do well. 

In moments of worry, it’s a good idea to present your child with evidence against their worry, as their anxious thoughts are likely to be all-consuming. Talk about the times when they’ve done well in the past. For example, remind them of a previous event they attended, how much fun they had once they got there, and how they came back talking about all the friends they’d played with.   

Your instinct may be to avoid situations that make your child anxious because these are upsetting for you too - but try not to let your child avoid the situations that worry them. If they stop doing something or going somewhere, they won’t have the opportunity to see that they can actually cope: the negative thoughts may grow.

Getting access to support and treatment 

Anxiety disorders are treatable. If you are looking for professional support, therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help your child better understand their thoughts and feelings and provide them with a toolbox of strategies they can use to tackle their worries. Family therapy can also help everyone’s strengths come to the fore to assist your child to recover and remain well.  

With the right help and support, your child will be able to manage their anxiety and enjoy their childhood.  

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: June 2019

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