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How do I talk to my child about anxiety?

 

Emma was eight years old when she had her first dance recital. Her mother, Alyssa, recalls the excitement before the big show – Emma had been thrilled about dressing up in a bright purple and yellow costume, and even wore it giggling all the way to the salon to get her hair done.


And then it was 10 minutes before showtime. Poor Emma had vomited all over her corner of the green room.


“It was so sad,” remembers Alyssa, “because she had messed up her costume, everyone was staring at her, and she still felt obligated to get out there after she’d just had this episode because they’d been taught in dance class that the show must always go on.


“To this day I’m not sure if it was a good or a bad experience for her, but it was definitely a learning experience for her. And for me.”


What Alyssa hadn’t realized was that Emma had experienced similar emotions to what she felt the night of the show. “When we were driving home that night, she admitted to me that she’d been feeling like something was floating around in her stomach but she figured that was part of being an actress getting ready to get on stage,” says Alyssa. “She’d normalized the feelings of anxiety, but they were crippling her, and she wasn’t talking about it, so that night, it all just hit her.”


Many kids who experience anxiety don’t actually know that’s how they’re feeling. Some think it’s normal to feel this way; others think there’s something wrong with them.


Some children report feeling physical symptoms that accompany their emotional upset, like headaches, stomachaches or other physical discomfort. Some kids will call out sick at school because they’re feeling so unwell, while others try to swallow and hide it, which typically makes it even worse.


If your child is starting to exhibit symptoms of anxiety, there’s a way to gently talk about the condition without making them feel scared, or causing them to pull away.


1. Have an open door policy.


When you encourage your child to talk, and you’re calm and open, it influences them to talk openly as well. You may want to share with them a time when you were anxious or scared about something, and ask them for their advice – what would they have done if they were you? You can bring up other social situations your child can relate to, and give them the chance to keep the conversation going.


You can ask them what’s been worrying them, and then sort through those feelings together without minimizing them. Validate them by telling them it’s absolutely normal to feel this way, and by doing this you’re showing them that you accept them just as they are – even with these worries and fears.


2. Help your child understand and recognize anxiety.


There are three ways anxiety can show up: through our physical feelings, our thoughts and our actions.


Learn alongside your child. Do your research together. Ask your child if they recognize any of the symptoms you’re reading about, and have them describe their thoughts, the physical sensations, and the feelings they might have when they’re anxious.


Find stories of other people who’ve experienced similar things and ask your child how they feel about that. Do any of those stories sound familiar? Have they found their own ways to move through their own feelings? Maybe they’ll have something to contribute to other kids who are going through the same thing.

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