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Words to Use When Your Child is Feeling Anxious



Quick Tips from Mary's books "Raising Your Spirited Child", and "Kids, Parents and Power Struggles" 
Developed by: Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D and Lynn Jessen, MA.

How do you respond when your child refuses to go upstairs by herself, cries if you attempt to leave her before she’s asleep at bedtime, or doesn’t want to go to an activity you know she will love once she gets there? When a child is experiencing anxiety, she demonstrates it in her behavior. Often that behavior is a vehement protest, but sometimes, it is a complete “shut down,” in which she is incapable of doing things she could do just yesterday. No matter which response, it is tempting to simply avoid the difficult situation, but anxiety increases when situations are avoided. Instead, it is important to gently nudge your child forward, empowering and supporting her to take on this challenge. Your words and actions make a difference. 



  1. Acknowledge that your child seems to be feeling anxious. 
  2. Seek understanding, what is your child worried about? 
  3. Talk with your child and together create a plan to make coping with this situation easier. If your child is a non-reader, make it a picture plan. If your child can read, use simple words. 
  4. Affirm your belief in your child’s ability to ultimately handle this situation. 

Be proactive, before your child experiences fear, or anxiety address the difficult situation

  • “I am leaving the room now. Do you want to come with me, or continue to play?”  By asking BEFORE you leave, you allow your child to make the decision when she is not feeling anxious. 
  • If your child says she wants to come with you, wait for her, and gently nudge by saying, “Okay, I will wait for you. Pretty soon, you will be comfortable continuing to play.”

Seek understanding and label your child’s feelings. Children must be able to name an emotion to manage it. For example: 

  • When your child says she has a tummy ache, ask her: “Does it feel like a sick tummy ache, or a worry tummy ache?” “Does it feel like fish are swimming in your tummy, or puppies are flipping in your tummy? That’s a worry tummy ache.” Or “That’s called anxiety.” 
  • If you notice a pattern articulate the emotion for the child, “I noticed that you get angry/sad/worried every time we go to swimming lessons.”
  • “What about this do you not like?  Tell me more. Is there anything else?”
  • “What are you thinking about?” (Often children are worried about things that you would never imagine – like “Will there be oxygen in the artic if there are no trees?”)

Ask what would make it better and together make an action plan. 

  • “Lots of people have these feelings too, including mom/dad.”
  • “We are problem solvers. Let’s think of three things we could do to make it better, like tell an adult. Get your lovie. Go outside or do an activity.”
  • “What do you need to make it better?”
  • “Would you like to know what’s going to happen?  Let’s make a visual plan so you know what to expect.”
  • “We can go early so you can watch first.” 
  • “Let’s bring along something you would like to show your teacher.” 
  • “Let’s tuck a photo of me in your pocket. You can look at it whenever you miss me.” 

Affirm your child’s ability to ultimately handle this situation. 

  • “Remember when you were not comfortable doing... but now you love it?” 
  • “Practice makes it better.” 

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