When A Child's Curiosity Is Masking Anxiety

by Dana Baker
Originally Published: 
A curious child with pigtails, leaning her hands on a window and looking through during a rainy day
Sasiistock / Getty

Kids are curious. Very curious. And we like that, we want that, we encourage that. Curiosity leads to interest, to learning, to an engaged child. But what if it is something else?

That curiosity can sometimes mask anxiety. It took me a while to notice, to see there was something else going on in my little girl’s head — to see that her questions were morphing into something slightly different. When her “how does” or “what is” shifted into more “what ifs.” What if this happens, what if that happens?

What ifs can hide — or reveal — fears. My daughter needed to know what was happening and when. Change of plans agitated her; then she’d wonder what if it doesn’t go as planned? What if something goes wrong?

Many anxious kids have good imaginations and yes, my daughter has a huge imagination. I just love all the creativity bursting out of her. I want to bottle it up sometimes so I can let it out and breathe some joy into the world. But when her imagination starts filling in questions with worst-case scenarios, I think, uh-oh. Now, what do I do?

Well, it turns out what we don’t want to do is tell her not to worry. Honestly, that helps practically nobody, ever. In fact, when I tried that — because of course, it’s the first thing I did — she just took the imagined outcome further and further. Finally, I realized that instead of just saying “it’s OK” and “don’t worry about it,” I should try another tactic.

So I try walking her through whatever the fear is to get her to reassure herself. Sometimes if it’s easy, I just talk her through the fear to show her she is OK, and she absolutely does have the strength to handle it. Often, she’s not feeling confident or is out of her comfort zone.

I say, “Looks like you’re pretty worried about this, what can we do to help calm you down?” Sometimes she can bring herself back with that. Sometimes we have to dance or stomp it out. And other times, it comes down to breathing. Just breathing with her. In and out, ever so slowly.

So notice the questions your child is asking — ask some of your own. There are many, many answers.

But expecting them to just get over it, isn’t one of them.

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