How to Process Children’s Anxieties: What to Say and What Not to Say

Anyone who has children at home during this historic time of fear and confusion probably is wondering how to best process what is going on as they reflect their anxieties and fears.

Emotions are contagious and what children will experience is a direct result of what they are observing, feeling and mimicking what their parents and other family members are experiencing. For a detailed neuroscientific explanation of this phenomenon, go to Dr. Bruce Perry’s website, scrolling down to “Recorded Office Hours” and look for the March 27th link entitled Emotional Contagion.

It is also important to appreciate and perhaps share with children who are able to understand this that fear, like stress, is a normal and healthy response to perceived or actual danger. Our brains are designed to protect us. Fear and anxiety responses to things going on around us are signals to our brains for us to do what we need to do to stay safe.

Most of us are feeling our own fear and anxiety now as our brains perceive the unknown; some kind of eminent danger, an invisible force, a strange predator. We need to practice self-care in order to manage our anxieties. This mirrors the directives on airplanes to put your own oxygen mask on first before attending to your child to put theirs on. We need to be conscious of what we are saying to ourselves to help us manage our anxiety and then to say these things to our children, modifying them to each child’s age, maturity and temperament.

Here are some conversational ideas:

Close up sad worried black mom cuddling daughter.

You can also help children notice where in their bodies they are feeling fear, anxiety and stress. You can talk to them about how our bodies often reflect what we are thinking and feeling and sometimes get very tense in places like our stomachs or chest or shoulders.

You can tell children, “Notice where in your body you are feeling stress. Concentrate on that part and let it know that it is okay to release that stress. It can help to do some deep breaths while you tell yourself this to help your body let that stressful energy out.”

Parents can then demonstrate how to do stress-releasing breathing by taking in a deep breath, holding it for a count of four, releasing it for another count of four, holding it again for another count of four and then repeating the process several times until the stress gradually gets less. Sesame Street offers several.

Here are two other resources for parents: The Pandemic Toolkit Parents Need and Survival guide: Parenting through the Global Pandemic.

In these highly stressful times it is important for parents to be intentional about what they say to their children in order to help children understand and manage their stressful thoughts, feelings and sensations. It can also help you become more intentional about what you communicate to yourself. This in turn helps children because of the whole amazing process of emotional contagion.

Invitation for Reflections:

  1. To what extent have you observed stress, fear or anxiety in your children? How have they expressed these in what they have said and in their behaviors?
  2. How are your own stress and anxiety levels? To what extent might your children be “catching” what you are feeling, i.e., experiencing emotional contagion?
  3. What are some of the specific messages you do and do not want to communicate to your children during this time of uncertainty and stress?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute