smarter ways to talk to your kids about anxiety

If you’re anything like me, explaining what anxiety is…can give you anxiety. Especially when trying to explain it to kids.

I’ve struggled with anxiety for many years. It first started showing itself when I was young, and has gotten more serious over time. What started as a “nervous stomach” in preparation for piano recitals has become panic attacks on the way to the zoo. It was easier to hide from people who weren’t around me all the time – friends didn’t see the dirty side of it like my parents did. Extended family didn’t know the truth about it like my husband did. And now, others don’t see the same side of it as my kids do.

My children are currently 3 and 4. Though they’re young, they pick up on anomalies like: mommy was ok yesterday and the day before when we went to the store, but today she’s crying. Mommy was fine when we drove to the park, but now she’s taking medicine before we drive to the zoo.

Unfortunately, kids pick up on everything.

It makes me sad knowing that I’ve got these issues that need explaining, but at the same time I pray that this is giving them a better understanding of the importance of mental health.

I remember the day that I had a bad panic attack traveling 40 minutes to the zoo. We were approaching a tunnel, and these had started making me very nervous. The panic attack started, and I closed my eyes to begin my breathing exercises. Suddenly, my daughter started vying for my attention. “Mommy! Mommy, look! Mommy, what’s that?” “You’ve got to answer her,” I told my husband, ” I can’t talk to her right now.” A few minutes later I reached my hand back to her and turned around. “Mommy is ok now,” I told her. “Mommy just wasn’t feeling good for a minute. What did you see?” At four years old, it’s easy enough to vaguely explain an issue and then move on. But at 6? At 9? What do we do then?

Explain it as early as you can.

It’s much easier to explain things to toddlers or preschoolers than it is to explain something like this to elementary aged children. The most basic details work for them. When I reference my anxiety, I explain my physical symptoms to my kids. “Mommy’s belly was hurting.” “Mommy wasn’t feeling good right then, so I took my medicine to feel better.” They don’t think to ask, “What kind of medicine was that?” “Why do you take that medicine?” I believe it’s important to be upfront with our kids, and with ourselves, about what we are struggling with and how it effects us.

For Elementary Aged Kids:

Giving them vague details won’t satisfy them like it used to. They are going to want a name for what it is you’re dealing with exactly. Explain the terms “anxiety,” “depression,” “sadness,” “anger.” Give them more descriptive terms for what you feel without creating the similarity to their emotions. In my mind, I’m already concerned that I’ve predispositioned my children for anxiety and depression related issues. I don’t want to convey that the sadness they feel may be depression, or that the nervousness they feel is anxiety. Teaching basic coping skills at this age is important. For example: when you’re mad, learn how to take a deep breath before acting. When you’re feeling nervous, learn to pray and tell yourself how good you are at ________. When you’re feeling sad, tell your mom, get a big hug, and look for something that makes you happy.

For Older Kids:

As children get older, their wheels are going to begin turning. They may start wondering why you have anxiety, and if they are going to have it too. They’re going to wonder how you “got it”, and they’re going to be looking for similarities within themselves. At this age, I believe it’s important to begin teaching more developed coping skills like specialized breathing exercises during moments of panic or anger, building strong self esteem and positive self talk, emphasizing a positive self image, etc.

– The advice I’ve listed here is based on Generalized Anxiety, not specialized for PTSD, severe depression, or specific phobias. These may require more in-depth conversations with a child psychologist or your family doctor. I believe that anxiety can be stunted at a young age if handled appropriately. Each person, and child, is different – where some may not require medication, another may. I am not a doctor, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

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