Supporting a child with anxiety

Emerging Minds, Australia, October

Related to Child anxiety

Resource Summary

This resource was developed to provide parents with practical strategies they can use to support their child to manage anxiety, build resilience and live their best life.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. In this resource, the term ‘parent’ includes biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, and other caregivers who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

There are many ways you can support your child when they are experiencing anxiety to help them live their best life. The following advice will help you to work together with your child to:

  • identify their anxiety triggers; and
  • find ways they can manage anxiety to reduce its impact on their life.

Understanding your child’s experience with anxiety

The first step in supporting a child with anxiety is to understand their unique experience and needs by being caring and curious about their experience.

You can develop an understanding by listening carefully when your child talks to you about what anxiety is like for them and the types of situations or difficulties they are worried about.

If you suspect your child may be experiencing some level of anxiety, encourage them to tell you about their experience and ask questions such as:

  • when do these feelings happen?
  • how does it feel in their body?
  • what thoughts are you having?
  • how do they cope with these feelings?

For example, if your child tells you they felt sick at school (and you suspect it’s because of anxiety rather than illness) you could ask them:

  • ‘Where were you when you felt sick?’
  • ‘What was going on?’
  • ‘How did you manage that?’

If you have a toddler, preschooler or primary school-aged child, it can be helpful to keep a diary to record their experiences over a week or two so you can see if there are any patterns, for example, whether they are anxious at certain times or places, or around certain people. Check out the following Emerging Minds guides for parents for tips and a table you can use to learn about your child’s experiences of anxiety.

With teens and young people, try to get them to talk openly about what they’re going through. Work on being patient and just listening. Sometimes allowing them to talk will help them work out how anxiety is impacting them – for example, identifying negative self-talk (or being overly critical of themselves) and how this reduces their confidence, or physical symptoms of anxiety like feeling sick or stomach pains that are stopping them doing things they might actually enjoy – so you can brainstorm together about strategies that might help. You’ll find some practical strategies later in this resource.

Talking about anxiety

If you think your child is experiencing anxiety talking about it is ideally best done when both you and your child are calm, have time to talk and won’t be interrupted by siblings or other distractions. With younger children, it can be good for them to be doing something, like drawing, while you’re talking together. With adolescents, those times when it’s just the two of you in the car can be good opportunities to chat – that is, when they don’t need to make eye contact and you know how much time you have together. If your older child won’t open up to you, encourage them to talk to siblings or other family members, friends, a coach, teacher or GP. There may be a counsellor at school or uni they feel comfortable talking to. This can be particularly helpful if they need support in managing their study load or extra time to complete an assessment.

Learn more about the role of a GP in this video.

Resources to help understand anxiety

You can also help your child to understand anxiety – what it is and how it affects them. Show older children and teens trustworthy websites with information written for them. Emerging Minds recommends the following:

For children and young people aged 3–17 years and their parents

  • The Brave Program
    A free interactive, online program for the prevention and treatment of childhood and adolescent anxiety, with information tailored for parents and children of different age groups.

For young people aged 12–25 years

Always show your child that you are confident they can cope with – and reduce – their anxiety. Reassure them that while it might seem difficult or overwhelming now, together you can find ways to help them feel calmer and in control of their anxious feelings.

Practical strategies

There are several things you can do to help your child reduce and manage anxiety, and decrease its impact on their daily life.

Everyone’s experience of anxiety is different, so figuring out which strategies work for your child and family might take some time. Remember it’s important to keep encouraging them until you find the right fit.

As children develop and grow, start by asking how you can help and if they’ve found any strategies that work for them.

Everyone’s experience of anxiety is different, so figuring out what works for your child and family might take some time. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

It’s also important to know that anxiety can get worse before it gets better. A common part of anxiety is avoidance of the object or situation that causes the anxiety. Avoidance keeps anxiety low initially, but over time this strategy actually increases anxiety. Because treatment often involves stopping the avoidance behaviour, it can appear the anxiety is getting worse initially. Let your child know you are there for them during this time. It is important that any strategy you put in place has time to begin making a difference.

Also think about timing – for example, it might not be a good idea to start using these strategies when a family member is unwell or you’re starting a new job. Supporting a child with anxiety can be frustrating and tiring for both you and your child – so take care of yourself and have your own support network or person ready to help you and your child.

The following are some strategies that can help to improve/reduce anxiety in children and young people (select a strategy to learn more):

Keep up daily routines

Predictable routines are important for children and young people, especially in times of stress. Young children’s emotions and behaviour are particularly influenced by daily routines, such as having enough nutritious food, sleep, play time, and learning and physical activity.

Sleep has a big impact on children’s emotions including anxiety, so check your child is getting enough sleep for their age. The Raising Children website has helpful, age-specific advice about sleep routines for toddlers, sleep routines for preschoolers, and helping children and teenagers sleep.

Model good coping for normal experiences of anxiety

You are an important role model for your child. Young children are like sponges, absorbing how you react to life’s stresses and worries. Older children and teenagers will also observe your reactions and can learn from any strategies you use.

If something is worrying you, tell your child about it (if it’s appropriate, depending on their age and the situation). Explain how you are going to face it and won’t let anxiety stop you. For example:

‘I feel a bit nervous about going to this party too, because I don’t know any of the other parents. But I often feel like that before parties, and once I get there I always have a good time. How about today we both give it a go?’

By sharing your experience, you are normalising anxiety and showing your child it’s possible to do things we are anxious about. This is especially true when children can see you trying things you are not necessarily confident in.

If you have an anxiety disorder or are struggling to cope with stress, read our advice about parenting a child with anxiety so you can support your child while managing your own anxiety/stress.

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Validate their worry, but limit reassurance

Your response to your child’s anxiety can have a big impact on them. Sometimes when parents try to help it actually keeps the anxiety going.

When young children are anxious, they will usually go to trusted adults or older siblings for reassurance that everything will be OK, to help calm their emotions, and to avoid the anxious situation. Often parents will respond by giving the child lots of hugs and special attention.

It’s important to validate your child’s worry. For example:

‘I can see why you would be worried about making new friends at your new school. I know other kids feel worried about making new friends too.’

But too much reassurance can be unhelpful. Often parents think providing reassurance will lower their child’s anxiety. However, this can lead to the child asking more questions and seeking more reassurance.

Instead of continuing to reassure your child, if you have identified some anxiety around a particular situation, try starting a conversation with them about their feelings and what they think might happen. For example:

‘I’m wondering if you are feeling worried about going to Karate tomorrow. What do you think? Do you think something might happen?’

Talk with your child about how they can handle the situation. For example:

‘I know you have a lot of questions about what might happen at school camp. This is going to be one of those situations where we can’t predict or plan for everything. So, let’s plan for what we know right now, and remember that sometimes things change, and that’s OK.’

Be careful not to get pulled into discussing all possible outcomes. Remind your child what you both know about the situation and their skills to handle it. For example:

‘There are other times you’ve been to new places, like when you started soccer. Remember how you handled that?’


‘If you feel nervous at the start, what can help you feel calmer?’

It’s about finding the balance between validating their fears and supporting them to manage and overcome their feelings of anxiety. Some physical support, like a little touch on the shoulder, when children are about face a situation they’re anxious about can be helpful. Let them know they are going to be OK, even if they feel scared.

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Gently encourage your child to do what they feel anxious about

As parents it’s natural to want to protect your child from feeling anxious or afraid – but allowing them to avoid what makes them anxious is unhelpful in the long run.

While it can feel good in the short term, avoidance keeps anxiety going and can even increase it. The best way to help your child overcome anxiety is to help them develop the confidence and skills to deal with it when it comes up.

Gently encourage and support them to gradually face their worries or do the things they are anxious about. That helps them learn they can cope with anxious feelings and that things might not be as bad as they imagined. If children do not get the opportunity to regularly practice facing their worries and fears, they are more likely to continue to experience anxiety later in childhood and adolescence.

It may help to break the task down into steps to make it seem more achievable and less scary. Encourage your child to set themselves a challenge. Perhaps they could try something like ordering their own meal or talking to a librarian about a book they want to find. If eating inside a café makes them feel anxious sometimes, try sitting outside and slowly make your way in over the next few visits.

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‘Just little things that will get them to face perhaps social anxieties. By making it a mini‑challenge it becomes almost a game and it helps them to move forward.’

– Jaisen, father of four, Tasmania

Children with general anxiety may seek lots of support in trying new things and when there are changes to their normal routine, such as having a relief teacher or changing schools.

If your child is an adolescent or young adult, explain that while it is our natural instinct to avoid situations/people/things that cause anxiety, it’s not helpful. Instead, encourage them to acknowledge the fear or worry, and with support and strategies in place, work towards find ways they can manage their anxiety to reduce its impact on their life.

Build their skills and confidence to cope

In your normal daily life notice opportunities for your child to do new things and learn new skills. Children who experience anxiety are more likely to say ‘no’ to new experiences, seek reassurance and support from you to do things that they could do themselves. Depending on their age and ability this could be things like getting dressed, brushing their teeth, packing their school bag or helping prepare family meals.

Encouraging your child to ‘have a go’ and take age-appropriate risks helps build up their skills and confidence to do tasks by themselves and to try new things.

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‘Working with a psychologist, we put in place strategies to help our daughter manage her anxiety around all things medical. This started with watching as an ambulance went past as opposed to turning away from it and sitting watching TV shows about the day-to-day runnings of a hospital. It took time and patience but really worked and has completely changed her life.’

– Alicia, mother of two, South Australia

Encourage them to be active and practice self-care

Some children who experience lots of worries have a build-up of tension in their body. Getting your child engaged in physical and relaxation activities can help them burn off excess energy and feel calmer in their body. Find physical activities they enjoy doing, like playing on the playground, jumping on the trampoline, swimming, bike riding or running races in the backyard. Other examples include jumping around and shaking their body, dancing or playing with fidget toys.

For older children, help them find a sport or physical activity they enjoy and can do on a regular basis. This could be joining a sports team, going to the gym or walking the dog. Suggest they exercise with a friend to help stay motivated. Physical activities are great for helping to release serotonin, a chemical messenger that reduces anxiety and depression.

Simple self-care such as eating nutritious foods and getting enough sleep (most teenagers don’t) are also important things that will help their overall mental health and wellbeing.

Encourage and support them to avoid or limit alcohol and drug use. Drinking or taking drugs might ease the discomfort of anxiety or make them feel more confident in the short term, but can make things worse in the long term by increasing mental and physical health problems.

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Moderate access to news and social media

Children’s anxiety can be influenced by what they see and hear on TV and social media about ‘threats’, such as COVID-19, bushfires, floods and war. Unrealistic social media images or video may also cause children to feel pressure to be ‘perfect’ or worry about how they look.

Some TV programs and social media interaction can provide valuable opportunities for children to learn and socialise online, but setting limits on the amount of access children have each day may help reduce anxiety. Explain why you are setting limits – because focusing more than necessary on distressing or unrealistic forms of media can increase their anxiety, and you want the best for them. Being able to access friends through social media may be very important to older children in particular, and it’s important not to downplay this.

For younger children try limiting exposure to news coverage of disasters or traumatic events. With older children who have a natural curiosity try watching together so you can alleviate any anxiety straight away by:

  • reassuring them that they are safe and adults are managing things
  • using age-appropriate language to help them understand what’s happened, why it’s happened, how likely this is to happen to you and your family
  • asking about their fears
  • answering their questions
  • comforting them
  • putting events in context by reminding them that there’s lots of good things happening in the world too – and giving some examples.

It can still help to sit down and have a conversation with children about distressing events after the fact if they’ve already learned about them elsewhere.

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Help them learn how to relax and manage stress

Help your child learn how to relax and explain that it takes practice and patience, just like any other skill. Relaxation exercises are not just useful in times of stress – they can be done regularly to help your child keep calm and help them to notice the early physical signs of anxiety.

Effective relaxation exercises include:

  • progressive muscle relaxation – gradually tightening and then relaxing different parts of the body
  • breathing exercises – bringing attention to the breath, and gradually slowing and deepening the way we breathe
  • visualisation – visualising a relaxing and peaceful experience or place.

There are lots of free apps and websites that offer guided breathing exercises and meditations for children of different age groups. Check out:

To help younger children build their relaxation skills, try some different techniques, find one they like, and then set a time in their daily routine to practice together. Teenagers may prefer to explore different strategies themselves. You could send them links to the previously listed resources.

Once your child has had some practice with the relaxation strategies that work for them, remind them to use these strategies whenever they feel worried so that they can manage the situation rather than avoid it. Over time, and as their confidence grows, they’ll automatically use their relaxation skills or may not need to use them anymore.

ReachOut also has some great tips for young people to deal with stress and anxiety.

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Acknowledge and praise their efforts and progress

Acknowledge your child’s progress in recognising and managing their anxiety. Notice their efforts and give them age-appropriate praise when they do something they were anxious about. For example, you might say:

‘Wow, you were so brave!’


‘Hey, well done on going to training even though you knew Jayden wasn’t going today.’

Make your praise specific if you can to reinforce the skills your child is practising. For example, if they used a breathing strategy, you could say:

‘That’s great that you thought to use your breathing to calm your mind down.’

With teens, notice even the smallest steps and successes to keep them motivated. Offer practical help that supports their efforts – for example, you might offer to drive them to training so they don’t have to get the bus, or offer to make their lunch during the week they have exams.

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‘Our (teenage) kids are encouraged by our praise and noticing things that they’re doing well. It boosts their self-esteem and confidence, and gives them the courage to do more.’

– Jaisen, father of four, Tasmania

Help your child challenge anxious thoughts

You can help your child notice and challenge their thinking by explaining that while thoughts can be powerful in the moment, not all thoughts are true or helpful. In fact, some thoughts hold us back from doing what we really want to do, and what is best for our development and wellbeing.

For example, a child or teen experiencing anxious thoughts may really want to go on a holiday to visit family but is fearful that the plane will crash and everyone will die. They may need some information about how safe flying is and to be reminded of what they will enjoy about seeing family.

Encourage them to look for evidence that thoughts are true or false. For example, you might say:

‘Your thought that “no one likes me” is a powerful thought. But I’m wondering if that’s true. You have told me about people you hang out with at recess – if they hang out with you it’s probably because they like you? What do you think?’

Also encourage your child to think about how helpful their thoughts are. Some thoughts may be true, but they don’t help us to do what we need to do or lead us to act in our best interests. For example, many children and young people are worried about climate change, and increasingly common natural disasters like bushfires and floods. Instead of feeding their fear, encourage them to think about how those anxious thoughts impact on them – for example:

‘How do those worries about the future impact on you? Rather than feel hopeless, what positive things can we do to try to make a difference?’

When asking these questions, be genuinely curious about your child’s response. Try not to get into an argument over which thoughts are ‘real’ or ‘unhelpful’. Anxious thoughts can feel very ‘real’ in the moment, especially for young children, even if they may seem irrational to you as an adult.

With support and understanding most children can successfully move past their anxious thoughts and feelings. By remaining curious and patient, parents play an important role in providing support and guidance to help children build resilience and navigate the ups and downs on their way to living their best life.

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More tips for parents

You can find more advice and tips for supporting your child or young person with anxiety in these recommended resources:

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