• Anxiety can be particularly difficult for children to manage, especially if they are too young to be able to communicate their feelings to you

  • Poppy O'Neill, author of 101 Tips For Your Anxious Child, offers 8 practical ways you can support your child in managing anxious feelings

  • We have therapists and counsellors trained to work with children if you feel they may benefit from professional support – find yours here 

When your child is feeling anxious it can be incredibly hard to know how to help them. Every child is unique and what works for one child might not work for the next. That’s why it’s so important to trust yourself as a parent and view your child’s emotions holistically – seeing them as a whole and complex human being, as only you can.

Be open to new ideas and creative about how you try them with your child. Below are just a few tips to help you and your child work together to tame their anxiety.

1. Find the right time and place to talk

Sitting down with your child to “have a chat” might not be the best strategy, as it could feel unnatural and intimidating to them. Try to broach the subject while you’re doing a calm activity, just the two of you. Perhaps gardening, walking, cooking or colouring together. Having something else to focus on, and less eye contact, can make tricky conversations flow more easily. Take the pressure right off and don’t push if they don’t want to talk or can’t articulate what’s wrong. Have patience, trust your gut and let them take the lead.

2. Read between the lines

If your child insists nothing is wrong, it’s worth considering what barriers there may be to expressing themselves fully. Often children might be worried about angering or upsetting you, so you can try reassuring them in advance. 

If you’ve reacted emotionally to something they’ve told you before, first of all forgive yourself. Acknowledge it to your child and apologise: “I know I got angry that time we talked before, and that was wrong of me. I’m sorry and I promise I won’t get angry with you this time.” The aim is to help your child feel safe and unpressured, so don’t ever push them to talk. Trust that they will come to you when they’re ready.

3. When your child is panicking

When humans feel high anxiety, our rational brains shut down. In addition to shortness of breath, a need to hide and a racing heartbeat, often the outward signs of a panic attack in children might be labelled as bad behaviour. 

It helps to shift your perception and view it as an involuntary expression of panic rather than “acting out”. An anxiety attack is an ever-changing situation, so you need to stay calm, move with it and be intuitive. One moment your child might need to be spoken to in a clear, firm voice; the next, they’re ready for a hug. Do not expect your child to make sense or be articulate. Resist the impulse to lecture, question or shame your child. You can discuss any problematic behaviour later, right now your focus is to help your child regulate their emotions and feel safe again.

4. Get creative

Studies have shown that creativity is a core part of healing emotional struggles. Whatever your child’s preferred medium, don’t underestimate the power of exercising creativity. Try to play down the idea of good and bad, focus on the process and let them create without pressure or comparison with others. If your child gets stuck for something to create, give them inspiration. Here are a few ideas to get their creative juices flowing:

  • Your dream house
  • A poster for the film of your life story
  • A restaurant menu
  • A magazine article about your favourite hobby

Make sure basic materials like pens, pencils and paper are always handy at home, so your child can turn to creativity whenever the mood takes them.

5. Thoughts aren’t facts

Just because your child thinks they are going to fail, does not make it true. Achieving a more positive mindset is a slow process and must be done one thought at a time. 

You can think of thoughts like stories. They might hold some truth, but there’s always another way of telling the story. For example, you might change the story “I am going to fail” into “I am going to try my best”, “I am going to succeed” or “If I’m not perfect, I will be OK”. Try a few different thought stories and see which feels comfortable for your child.

6. Comparison

A lot of childhood anxiety can come from observing other children and making comparisons. This is perfectly normal and it’s almost certain that every other child is doing the same! It’s also very likely that other children secretly admire qualities in your child. Remind them of this when they feel less able than their peers. Let your child know that they are wonderful exactly as they are and that what other people do, look like or achieve does not diminish or build up your child’s worth.

7. Stay hydrated

Dehydration has been found to increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Its effects – increased heart rate, a dry mouth, dizziness and headaches – can also mimic those of anxiety, meaning your child might feel heightened anxiety simply because they don’t have enough water in their bodies. It’s worth treating your child to a water bottle they’re proud to be seen sipping from, which will encourage them to stay hydrated. A big gulp of water is an instant mood-booster and adequate hydration helps regulate emotions, as well as improve sleep and digestion.

8. Identify your stress points

Is there a particular time of day when your child’s anxiety is guaranteed to be heightened? It’s likely you dread this time, anticipating your child’s distress or difficult behaviour in the lead-up. We often can’t avoid these parts of the daily routine, but we can make adjustments that lower our own stress and release a little of the pressure. If it’s leaving the house that’s challenging, try getting everyone’s shoes on five minutes earlier. Mealtimes can be a battlefield – could your child serve themselves, so they have a bit of control over what’s on their plate? If bedtime is a stress point, try taking a bath straight after lights-out. Being unavailable but still close by might help your child relax.

Poppy O’Neill is the author of 101 Tips to Help Your Anxious Child, published by Summersdale

Further reading

Does my child need therapy?

My child has anxiety - what can I do?

Why empathy is important in parenting

My child is self-harming - what can I do?

How to spot if a child is vulnerable to body dysmorphia