14 things to say to calm an anxious child
If your child suffers from anxiety, then you know how difficult it can be to find the right words to help them when they’re feeling worried. You know that they’re going to be fine, and that there is really no need for them to worry, but when you tell them this, they don’t believe you. In fact, many of the common things we say to help anxious kids calm down can actually make their anxiety worse:
- You’ll be fine
- There’s nothing to worry about
- It’s no big deal
- I don’t understand what you’re so worried about
- You don’t need to worry about it
- Big girls/boys don’t get scared by….
- It’s going to be ok!
Although well meaning, these phrases are a problem for a number of reasons. The main thing is that they feel invalidating to a child. They make them question their experience and the way they feel, but don’t give them any real information about what they can do to feel better or to manage the situation themselves.
An anxious child feels overwhelmed, helpless and unsafe. Our response as adults needs to help them feel safe, empowered and in control. We can do this by responding with empathy and encouragement.
We want to send a clear message to our child that we understand how they feel, that we are there to support them, and that we believe they are capable and brave. But achieving the right balance of “I’m here for you” and “You can do this on your own” without exacerbating the situation, can be tricky!
Want to know how to calm an anxious child? Here are 14 phrases you can try next time your child is feeling worried:
1. I’m here for you
First things first – when the brain perceives a threat, the stress response – also called the “fight or flight” response – is triggered. This response is designed to keep your child safe from harm. But in an anxious child, this response is sometimes triggered in the absence of any danger. By letting your child know you are there for them, you are sending a message to the brain (and your child) that it is safe, and THEY are safe.
2. Let’s breathe together
When the fight or flight response is triggered, breathing and heart rates increase, as the body prepares to escape danger. However, this rapid, shallow breathing can also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and make your child feel worse. When we breathe slowly and purposefully, we send the brain the message that the threat is gone and the stress response is switched off. This helps your child feel calmer and think more clearly. You can find some fun mindful breathing exercises to do together with your child here.
3. Tell me how you’re feeling
Give your child an opportunity to let you know how they are feeling and why. Listening to your child, without interruption or judgment, helps them feel heard and understood. And often when we voice our fears, they lose their power. Many worries feel so much larger in our heads than they do when we say them out loud!
4. I know this is hard for you
Responding with empathy and understanding when your child is feeling anxious helps them feel safe. It’s another way of saying, “I’m here for you”. It’s tempting to dismiss their fears, especially when we can see that there is no real threat present in a situation. But the threat feels very real to your child, and acknowledging how they feel will help them better deal with it.
5. It’s ok to feel scared
Sometimes when children feel anxious, we inadvertently send them the message that this feeling is “wrong”. This adds another layer of anxiety to the situation – now our children feel anxious about feeling anxious! Let them know that ALL feelings are ok. Feelings are signals, and their feeling of anxiety is simply a message that something in their environment might not be safe. Now we just have to investigate what it might be and what we can do about it!
6. Everyone feels anxious/worried/scared sometimes
It’s important to normalise how your child feels. Because anxiety IS normal. We all feel anxious from time to time – it’s our brains way of protecting us from unsafe situations. Knowing that everyone feels the same way occasionally is empowering for your child – if others can overcome their anxiety, then perhaps they can too!
7. How big is your worry?
Helping your child use a rating scale to measure the size of their anxiety can help them put their feelings into perspective. It also helps them select an appropriate strategy to manage those feelings – a worry that is a 3/10 may simply require a few deep breaths. But your child may need a little more help, or a little more time, to work up to something with a worry rating of 9/10. A rating scale also gives your child a helpful benchmark to compare different situations and build up their confidence. For example, if last week they got through a situation that felt like a 7/10 on the worry scale, then they may feel more confident in their ability to cope with today’s 5/10.
8. Where in your body can you feel your worry?
Anxiety has an emotional, mental and physical component. This is because the fight or flight response triggers physiological changes in the body designed to help your child fight or flee danger. These physical feelings can feel scary for kids, and can make them feel more anxious. Teaching your child how to recognise physical sensations that accompany their anxiety can help them learn to identify it early on and put strategies in place to control it.
9. This feeling won’t last forever
When your child is in the grips of anxiety, it can feel to them like it’s never going to end, and that is terrifying! But all emotions come and go, and anxiety is no different. Much like a wave, the feeling will reach a peak, and then gradually come back down. Encouraging your child to “ride the wave” and remain in the situation until their anxiety is gone, will help them feel more confident and gives them experience to draw upon for next time.
10. What’s the worst that could happen?
Asking this question will give you a sense of what your child is worrying about. When we feel anxious, we often “catastrophise”. We run through a range of worst case scenarios in our heads and convince ourselves that these are going to happen. But often, when we really stop and think about what the worst possible outcome could be – it’s not as bad as we were imagining!
11. I believe in you
Let your child know that while you understand how they feel, and how difficult this is for them, you believe they can do it! Avoiding a situation they feel anxious about only serves to strengthen your child’s anxiety as they don’t get a chance to learn that they can cope with the situation. And allowing your child to avoid a situation sends them the message that you don’t believe they are capable of dealing with it, and that it really is scary!
12. You can do hard things
Help your child draw upon their courage by reminding them of other difficult things they’ve done. Talk about all the times they’ve been nervous about something but did it anyway, and remind them of how good that felt! After all, courage is not the absence of fear, it is feeling fear, but doing it anyway!
13. What was helpful last time?
Help your child think about what has worked to help them manage their anxiety in the past. This reminds them that they have strategies they can use of course, but also that those strategies have been effective before!
14. What strategy do you want to use?
When we feel overwhelmed by anxiety, it’s hard to think clearly. Sometimes, even though your child may have learned plenty of strategies for dealing with their anxiety, they may have trouble remembering to use them in the moment. Gently reminding them that they have tools available to use helps them feel less helpless and more in control. It also shifts the focus from the problem to the possible solutions, and engages the rational “thinking brain”, helping them to feel calmer and more empowered.
Want a cheat sheet for your fridge? Download the entire list of helpful phrases here.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.