How to Explain Worry and Anxiety to a Child

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

Anxiety and worry are natural emotions, but they can be distressing and overwhelming for children.

Understanding how to explain feelings of anxiety in a child-friendly way is your first step towards helping them cope.

In this article I’m going to give you simple metaphors and techniques to explain anxiety to children, and the power we have over it.

I am Lucy Russell, clinical director of Everlief Child Psychology, one of the largest child psychology clinics in the UK. Around 80% of children who come to us for therapeutic support are suffering with anxiety.

It’s no exaggeration to say that there is an epidemic of childhood anxiety right now, so if your child is worried or anxious, you’re in good company.

Let’s start with some simple explanations and tips.

close up of an anxious 8 year old girl

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural physical response.

When we’re anxious, our body gears up to face a challenge, releasing hormones like adrenaline. This causes physical signs of anxiety like a faster heart rate and racing heart, shortness of breath and stomach aches. It’s known as the fight or flight response. In the case of severe anxiety this can spiral and cause panic attacks.

We can help even young children understand anxiety symptoms by explaining them as our body’s way of preparing to react quickly, like when we need to run or jump.

It acts like a fire alarm system, sometimes going off without a real threat, similar to a smoke alarm that is too sensitive.

This can help kids grasp why they might feel scared even when they are safe, and it’s okay to calm down from their strong feelings.

a mother hugging her six year old daughter tightly

Understanding Worry

Worries are like uninvited guests in our minds.

They come without warning and can be bothersome, but the good news is that, like any guest, they will eventually leave.

Encourage your child to see these anxious feelings as temporary and not a part of their core self.

Single Worry Vs Snowballing Worry

Worries are thoughts.

Sometimes they are very clear, easy to describe thoughts, and other times they are a vague niggle, perhaps a jumble of multiple worries rolling around in your child’s mind.

Think of this like a snowball gathering momentum as it rolls down a hill.

Example of a single worry:

“I might get told off at school.”

Example of a vague or snowballing worry:

“The kids in the playground are scary and something might happen in the playground, or people might laugh at me in the classroom if I get something wrong, and people won’t want to be friends with me and I’ll be alone and…” (And so on.)

Worries Vs Facts

The most important thing we can teach anxious kids about worries is that they are not facts.

Many children of all ages (and even adults) believe their worries.

Instead, teach them that worries are just mental events created by the brain.

The brain loves to come up with worst-case scenarios, because the brain is designed for survival rather than happiness.

So how can we be happy if our brains are not designed for happiness? Well, we can use “anxiety hacks” to manage worry!

a young boy hugging his dad

Anxiety Hacks to Manage Worry

1. Detaching from Worry

Teach your child to look at their worries as if they are clouds in the sky.

They are there one moment and gone the next.

This perspective helps them realize that worries are not permanent.

two boys chatting under a tree

Thoughts trigger emotions, even if they are not true or the worry is not likely to happen.

Teach your child to spend time observing their thoughts – or writing them down – like an interested bystander watching clouds passing.

The idea that your child is an observer of what’s going on inside their brain is much more helpful than letting thoughts “happen” to them, allowing the thought to trigger worried feelings.

Of course, we all allow thoughts to trigger worry sometimes. As I have already mentioned, our brains evolved to keep us alive rather than to make us happy.

So, focusing on possible dangers was a great survival tactic.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work for us in our modern lives. Children and young people can become so caught up in their minds that they lose out on living.

Teach them to identify the thought, and then detach from it.

Try the helpful thoughts below:





Diagram: Ways to detach from worry

2. Challenging the Thought

Guide your child to question their anxious thoughts. Encourage them to differentiate between what’s a real danger or concern and what’s just a passing worry.

This is one of the main components of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Asking questions like, “Can I do something about this now?” helps them gain control over their feelings.

As thoughts have such a massive impact on a child’s feelings and mood, they must learn to question them.

It’s a good idea to start with just one thought at a time.

With older children, go through the series of questions below to check how true or likely the thought or belief is.

Then your child will be in a much better position to judge whether they should allow the thought or belief to influence their day, their mood, or their everyday life.

Questions to ask:

  1. Are you confusing a thought with a fact? (Examples: “I’m not popular”, “the world is against me”.) Thoughts are not true just because they have appeared in your mind.
  2. Would your thought be accepted as correct by other people? What evidence do you have to back it up and to contradict it?
  3. Are you doing “black and white thinking”? For example, people are not usually all good or all bad. They are a mixture of the two. Are you applying this kind of black-and-white thinking to yourself?
  4. What alternative viewpoints are there? Is your view of things the only possible view?
  5. Are you catastrophising? It means always assuming the worst. It means assuming that a terrible thing is going to happen because one small bad thing happened, e.g. I missed a step in the ballet routine so I will fail my exam.”

Most anxious children will be new to this technique.

Once you do this a few times, you’ll see that your child starts to pick up the technique and eventually it will become automatic.


3. Worries Come and Go Like Clouds

All worries pass. If your child has a worry, help them to be like an observer watching that worry, imagining it as a cloud.

Rather than being controlled by thoughts and feelings, we can learn to be interested observers, watching them in a detached way, knowing that, just like clouds, they will soon pass.

There is blue sky and sunshine behind the clouds. Your child will not always feel this way.

All worries, big and small, will pass.

The same can be applied to common fears and specific phobias. Your child’s fear will pass.

It’s very helpful to create a visual to illustrate your child’s anxiety by drawing thoughts and feelings clouds.

It often helps young kids to step back and become an observer more easily.

Eventually they will learn that they can choose whether to engage with the cloud that is directly above, or just watch it as it slows passes by.

Helping Your Child Cope With Worry

4. Imagine a Worry as a Balloon

This technique involves picturing each worry as a balloon.

Have your child draw their worries on balloons and then ‘release’ them into the sky by letting the balloon go. This can be a powerful visual and physical representation of letting worries go.

First, ask your child to choose one of their worries.

On an A4 piece of paper ask them to draw their worry as a balloon. The larger the balloon, the larger the worry.

Then start to talk through things that could make the worry smaller, even if only a tiny bit. Questions you could ask include:

  • How would you advise a friend who had this same worry?
  • How could we deal with the worry together?
  • Who can support you with the worry?
  • How likely is it that the worry will come true, and is it taking up more space in your mind than it really should?
  • Think of a similar worry you had in the past. How did you deal with it that time? What happened? Did the worry come true?

Make some notes, and then choose 3-5 of the most powerful statements, that will help “shrink” the worry.

worry balloons: Helping Your Child Cope With Worry

Draw this number of hands around the balloon, pushing on it, releasing the air.

Then your child should write out the statements, one in each of the hands.

little boy drawing and colouring at a desk

Next, take stock of everything you have done, and ask your child how much the worry has shrunk.

Ask them to draw a new balloon, representing the worry now that some air (power) has been released from it.

Repeat with other worries as and when they come up.

Eventually your child will start to shrink worries without your help.

If you want to deepen your understanding about anxiety so you feel clear on exactly which steps will help for your child, consider our mini-course, Knowledge is Power!

Knowledge is Power: Understanding Anxiety in Children course

How to Explain Worry and Anxiety to a Child: Summary

It’s essential to reassure your child that feeling worried or anxious at times is completely normal and that everyone experiences these emotions.

The key takeaway is that these feelings are manageable and don’t have to dominate our lives.

With the right tools and understanding, your child can learn to control their worries, rather than letting their worries control them.

More Articles About Worry and Anxiety

5 Easy Emotional Regulation Activities For Kids

Mood Cards To Print: Help Children Understand Their Emotions

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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