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Helping your child talk about anxiety – the descriptive toolbox





28th March, 2021

Finding the right words to describe your feelings in any given situation can be a challenge, even for adults. It can be even more difficult for a child.  As a part of equipping our children to monitor, modulate and modify their emotions, learning to regulate their emotions, we need to give them the correct vocabulary to name their emotions. We need to help them talk about anxiety.

They are still learning and equipping them with the right feeling words not only helps them to feel understood, but to later self-describe how they are feeling – to others – but also, in internal-to-themselves conversations. Children these days are bombarded with terms such as anxiety, trauma and stress. These words, now more than ever, have crept into everyday language and for some people they are misused and used to exaggerate what may be other normal emotions like being a bit nervous or be unsure.

Part of the role as adults (who have a much richer vocabulary) is to help children understand emotions and to categorise them proportionately. We also need to check in with our own language and ensure we are not exaggerating terms like ’anxiety’ to describe worrying feelings or ‘traumatised’ to describe a difficult situation. As parents we need to see it as part of our role to correct the misuse of these ‘exaggerating’ terms and to correct children when they use them.

At any one time, a person will be feeling a multitude of emotions.  This is called your affect cluster.  When we emotion coach children, it can be helpful to help them to identify their affect cluster ‘I can see you must be feeling really scared/frightened/upset…’ and mirror their emotion back to them so they feel understood.

A big part of emotion coaching is equipping our kids with an emotional understanding and in preparation for the day when they will eventually recognise and regulate their own emotions.

To help with this process, Innovative Resources ‘Bear Cards’ can be useful. You can purchase them here.

I also know people who prefer to use the feelings wheel (sometimes called the emotions wheel). Whatever resource you use, it is all about your child learning to reflect on their feelings and learning to label them.

It is important for significant adults in a child’s life to know the majority of anxious thinking is learned, two-thirds of it actually. What can happen is poorly constructed explanations can be implanted in a child’s mind, such that a child’s immediate emotional reactions reinforce higher anxiety. In other words, children bring to the table a partial self which relies on a completed self (that of adults) to help them develop coping narratives. If children don’t get help early to overcome their worries, anxieties and fears they’ll become more anxious.

If you want parenting tips on managing anxiety and building resilience, Parentshop is running an interactive webinar for parents to learn a parent-led intervention to reduce anxiety and build resilience in children aged 2 -12 years. The workshop will be held over It will be held over three, two hour long sessions over three consecutive Thursdays, evenings 6th, 13th and 20th May 2021 from 6.30pm – 8.30pm to register visit www.parentshop.com.au/parent-courses

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents. You can find more information, including his books and self-paced online parenting courses at https://www.parentshop.com.au/parent-courses


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