What should we say about anxiety with our kids and teens?


When should we start talking about anxiety and what should kids know?

One of the most common things I’ve heard in my role as a psychologist from adults that are usually supporting their child with anxiety is that they think they had anxiety as a child too.  But that they either didn’t have any support with it, or really know that they had it until they were older.  Sometimes things needs to change for us to develop awareness of what has been happening.  Or that ability to reflect back on childhood moments with adult understanding for it to all make sense.

When I hear this I think about that child that was experiencing anxiety and not knowing what was going on with them, that they thought they were weird or different if they noticed other kids were not experiencing this as well, or they just thought everyone had this same experience but no one else seems to be worried about it.

Anxiety can be such a consuming and challenging condition if you experience it frequently and it is certainly not an enjoyable state to be in for long periods of time.  And we know from research that long term chronic anxiety can cause all kinds of changes to our bodies and minds.

Autistic children, teens and adults are more vulnerable to experience anxiety for a number of different hypothesised reasons.  But regardless of the why we can understand that triggers to that anxiety include sensory triggers and lack of social understanding.  For a child to not understand firstly that they have a different kind of brain that makes it more likely that they experience increased feelings of anxiety and why and how it happens only makes it more overwhelming for them.

Having information, having understanding allows us to at least name something and in doing that, contain it.  So although this top down approach is not enough on it’s own to help, it is part of what can be very useful for parents to have understanding about, so that conversations can be held with their children about it.  So what would be useful for kids to know about anxiety?

Firstly I think because anxiety feels so overwhelming it’s important to be able name what is happening to their bodies.  So learning words for the feeling and having a discussion about what this feels like for them individually.  Doing drawings, finding videos about it and reading books about it.

Acknowledge that although anxiety feels awful, it is a natural human function that has been designed to try and keep you safe in emergency situations.  Explore the natural biological and brain behaviour that happens when we feel anxiety.

Use books, videos to show that brains have an automatic response that triggers this anxiety response in order to get your body ready to run, fight or freeze.  And that in an emergency, your body will respond and do what it needs to keep it safe.

However when we have anxiety responses when we are not in emergency situations, but our bodies interpret that it is, this is where it can become problematic, confusing and debilitating.  This is when we need to understand what is triggering it, what can help to make us feel safer generally, but also what we can do to feel safer in the moment. 

So understanding our biology helps to normalise it, but learnings ways to calm our body down in the moment is also important. 

Thinking of making an anxiety plan, so that one can easily know what they will do if the begin to notice or experience anxiety.  So understanding what helps for their particular anxiety and being readily able to name it, and use a tool to help with is.  Some tools might include: things like distraction, mindful breathing, fidget toys, music and lots of other things can really help those anxious moments be less uncomfortable.  Having a plan, even if it doesn’t work each and every time, helps people and kids to be less afraid of anxiety as well.  Being able to know that anxious moments will pass and having a plan to get back to feeling calm and in charge is great feeling to be able to support your child with.

If uncertainty about a situation something that you or your child is experiencing at the moment, it is even more important to understand what we can do to help.  Having a way of feeling grounded, calm and safe when there is so much change and unpredictability is going to be very useful skills in these current times.

If you feel like you could use some support in understanding this more, or supporting your child with this, we cover this and more in Spectrum Steps.  August round of Spectrum Steps starts tomorrow morning and it’s not too late to join me.

Published by Kate French

Clinical Psychologist; expertise in autism and child and family psychology.

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