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What to Do When You Don’t Know Where Your Child’s Anxiety Comes From

The only reason your physician asks about your symptoms is because he cannot accurately treat your pain and discomfort, if he doesn’t know where that pain and discomfort is coming from. And even then, being aware of all the symptoms does not mean that he will always get the treatment right the first time, or the second, or ever! Even when patients know how to accurately describe their symptoms, cases of misdiagnosis and worsening symptoms after treatment abound. We now know that knowing the symptoms is not always synonymous with knowing the cause.

I like to think of children’s anxiety along the same lines. Identifying what drives your child’s anxiety can be easy — changing schools, going to an activity where he’s scared of the facilitator, a fear of swimming pools, feeling like he won’t be able to make friends; these are all normal anxiety-provoking situations for a child, and they are generally easier to “fight” when you know what monster you have to fight against. But there are times when a child shows all the symptoms of anxiety, but you can’t quite place a finger on the source. Dealing with this type of anxiety can place you on quite slippery terrain.

Our daughter’s anxiety began as would any other child’s. She was shifting from preschool to elementary school and was scared of what, we thought, was the unexpected. She was going to have a male teacher; until then, she had only had female ones. She was going to start reading. We would no longer be able to accompany her to her class. Things were about to get more “serious.”

We have made it a habit to speak to our kids about it being normal to have difficult emotions, about being able to deal with even the scariest of them. We thought this knowledge would help her sail through the shift, but dealing with her anxiety took longer than we would have ever imagined. The thing is, the shift sparked the anxiety, but we only saw the surface, the tip of the iceberg. Her anxiety was on and off, and she was unable to pinpoint where it came from. She talked about being scared, but the things that sparked her fears changed at dizzying speed. We were up against an invisible monster. What we knew for sure was that she was going through an anxious episode and we had to do something to ensure her anxiety didn’t ruin her first year in elementary school.

These are the three things that worked for us:

1. We found out what worked.

Kids will not always react in a given manner. The last time our daughter had a bout of anxiety, worry dolls had worked wonders. This time around, they wouldn’t do. The thing is, young kids do not necessarily connect “the same feeling” with the same “coping mechanism.”

There’s good news and bad news for parents who have to deal with natural worriers. The good news is that there are thousands of coping mechanisms to help your child manage anxiety. The bad news is that not all those mechanisms will work for your child, meaning that you have to adopt a “test and see” approach. The appropriate coping mechanism has to feel right to help your kid learn to manage his anxiety by himself.

2. We chose not to focus on fear and anxiety.

Seeing your child struggling with fear and anxiety can be hard. A common reaction is to try and protect her, but here’s the thing: focusing on your child’s anxiety-related temperament and behavior makes it worse, not better. The more we spoke to our child about anxiety, the bigger her fears grew. These two things worked for us:

  • We completely stopped talking about anxiety and fear and started focusing on positive behavior that would help her deal with that anxiety.
  • We stopped reinforcing her behavior by hanging around at drop off. We started telling her we had to leave, and that we knew she’d have a great day, and started leaving confidently without turning around after saying goodbye.

3. We taught her that it is possible to feel fear and still be brave.

Try as we might, we cannot get rid of “big” emotions. Difficult as they make be, emotions play an important role in our lives. Being emotionally intelligent is not about experiencing less difficult emotions; it is about reacting appropriately to the emotion-provoking situations we encounter every day.

Instead of telling our daughter to act as though she was not scared, we taught her to say, “I was scared today, but I still managed to…” or “I felt a bit anxious, but I managed to…” We taught her that even in the midst of big emotions, she could still find balance. This strategy worked especially well because it made her aware of possible options for behavior change. 

Every time she exhibited the expected behavior, she received a special card (“I felt anxious today, but I still went and played with my friends”). The cards made it easier to understand that it is possible to feel anxious or to be scared and still carry on with “normal activities.”

If your child, like our daughter, is a natural worrier, he will need more help than other kids to deal with major changes. The good news is that there are a wide range of strategies that can equip you with the tools you need to help him better manage his anxiety episodes. Remember that if his anxiety seems to increase, his behavior appears extreme, or you feel unable to help, a professional can provide you with strategies adopted to your situation. 

What to Do When You Don’t Know Where Your Child’s Anxiety Comes From

Sanya Pelini, PhD

Sanya Pelini holds a Ph.D. in educational research. She shares tools to help foster children’s emotional regulation on her blog and is the author of The Emotions Kit, a toolkit with practical resources to help kids learn to identify and manage strong emotions such as anger and anxiety in a socially appropriate manner.

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APA Reference
Pelini, S. (2019). What to Do When You Don’t Know Where Your Child’s Anxiety Comes From. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2019 (Originally: 9 Oct 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.