Reaching Out: Talking with Children About Anxiety

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In the “before times,” I worked as a camp counselor at an “adventure camp” in Utah—commonly known as one of the most adventurous states in the union—and was charged with guiding children through life-altering experiences that challenged them both emotionally and physically. I watched them suffer through moments of crisis, held firm when they asked for a reprieve that I knew they didn’t actually need, and I gloried with them while they worked through their fears and made it out the other side: sometimes they’d be a little out of breath, sometimes they’d even be a little tear-streaked, but almost always they’d stare up at me with a light in their eyes and an astonishingly wide smile on their faces. The best ones were always missing a few teeth, but the sentiment was felt nonetheless.

As we’ve all heard over a hundred times now, we are now living in the “after times;” the “unprecedented times” that have thrust countless children into a netherworld of Zoom classrooms and physical isolation. When it comes to my own kids, I had always planned on teaching them the limitless capabilities—the grit and perseverance that seemingly waits to be unlocked in all children—in much the same way I’d guided young kids through rope trials and obstacle courses many years before: with a steady hand, an open heart, and plenty of shared determination.

How do I guide them through the world as their parent, when the world has suddenly shrunk down to just a few rooms and inescapable walls, bordered by insurmountable fences? What challenges and adversities will they face here?

The Hurdles of Anxiety

As it turns out, there are plenty of obstacles my children have had to face these past few months, and not the least of which are physical—though, sometimes they are severe enough to manifest themselves in physical symptoms. 

While I’ve been wringing my hands over how to teach them “New Math,” they’ve been locked away from their teachers and mentors and friends, and at an age when forging these relationships would have left a lasting impact on their emotional and physical development. Instead of learning to navigate a classroom, a schoolyard, or even a dreaded-dodgeball game, they have navigated online forums that might not be their preferred method of communication and learning.

Instead of pushing themselves to swim extra laps at a pool, or kicking a soccer ball with some friends at a park after class, they are stuck inside, peering through a digital window that only paints a picture of increased unrest, instability, and disregard for human life.

It’s enough to bring any adult to their knees, let alone a child. Sometimes, my eldest is sluggish and slothful, hoping that extra time spent sleeping is, simply put, extra time they don’t have to spend awake. My youngest has different methods of self-soothing, but in the end, the lack of consistent human contact has left even her sunny disposition bereft of its usual joy.

They are tired, scared, and anxious. And, oftentimes, I feel that they would like me to understand what it is they’re feeling, but they either lack the vocabulary or the understanding to characterize it as such. 

And why not? It’s exactly how I’ve trained them to behave.

The Hill that Never Ends

I like taking my children for long walks. When they were old enough, I began taking them out on difficult and challenging hikes, many of which would have left an adult heaving for breath. I strongly believe it’s my responsibility to raise my children with healthy habits that I hope will stick with them throughout their lives—as a source of both comfort and learned mental toughness. After they’d finished years worth of hikes, they learned to stop asking when the hill climb would end, and instead, set their jaw, breathe deep, and hold on to every member of our family as we pushed forward. I’d watch them with pride as they reached a summit that had pushed their limits, and observed their victory in silence before I asked them what the view had made them feel. I could feel their resolve.

Now, they have been asked to climb so many hills—and they must do so without the benefit, the relief, the joy of having tangible proof that they have accomplished something. They are climbing without stopping, and they are setting their teeth, and shutting their eyes tight to prevent them from spilling over with tears. 

I had naively taught them that “complaining” never solved anything. But, I failed to teach them that sharing their feelings, their needs, was not the same as complaining—it was just an honest look at the state of their minds and their mental health. 

First Steps

Now, it’s time for me to “unlearn what I have learned,” and to help my children with that too. They deserve a safe space to come to me with their needs whenever they feel like they must share themselves, or else be forgotten. This means curling up with them in their favorite blankies, serving them some hot chocolate, reading for some storytimes: the works. Stressed out children need to feel like they’re communicating clearly, with a shared vocabulary, and that their deepest concerns are being heard, and hopefully, met.


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