- The mental health of parents can influence their children environmentally as well as genetically.
- When kids are feeling anxious, it may be time to look at what fearful, overcautious parents are teaching children about themselves.
- Anxiety is a natural part of life, but anxious parents can model healthy coping strategies as well as fears and worries.
- When parents use storytelling, emotional honesty, and quality time, they can counteract the contagion of parental anxiety.
If you’re an anxious person familiar with catastrophizing, you can sometimes calm your fears about the future by asking yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Your answer to this question may shine a light on the irrational nature of your worries. According to British philosopher Bertrand Russell, you may realize that “nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance.” Poof, you’ve regained a healthy psychological perspective.
But I was never convinced that this remedy could apply to parental anxiety. Because when you’re an anxious parent, you imagine and reimagine the–trigger alert–death of your child. And that does have cosmic importance. It’s apocalyptic. What’s the worst that could happen, you ask? Your child could die and then the world would most certainly end.
We love our kids with such gut-wrenching, unequivocal, unconditional devotion that our mutual cosmic demise seems utterly reasonable. In fact, it’s the only possible outcome to a small accident on the trampoline or whatever your doomsday mind envisions. And the apocalypse may seem imminent, at all times. Your kid is jumping on the couch. Well, they might lose their balance and knock their head on the corner of the coffee table and suffer a traumatic brain injury and then the world will end. They’re riding their scooter, wearing the best helmet money can buy. Same deal. End of the world. They’re eating grapes. Well, everyone knows what happens when you eat grapes. (Mushroom cloud. Nuclear wasteland.)
So there’s the joy-obliterating parental worry described above. And then there’s the worry about worrying, i.e., “I’m worrying too much. I’m damaging my kid irrevocably. Now they’re going to grow up to be as anxious as I am. I’m the worst parent in the world.”
And then there’s covid. And climate change. And school shootings. And space billionaires. And other completely legitimate, completely logical reasons for worrying ourselves into early graves thanks to this messy world of ours.
So what are we supposed to do to protect our children from our own contagious anxiety?
Mushroom Cloud, Dispelled
First of all, if you’re anxious, your kid is more at risk for getting chronic anxiety than suffering from a fatal accident. About 12,000 children a year die from unintentional injuries, but over 4 million kids are diagnosed with anxiety. There’s fear and there’s facts. So let’s face what we can control.
What Anxious Parents Are Doing Wrong
Speaking of control, research shows that child anxiety is correlated with higher levels of parental control. Parents can be controlling because they’re disciplinarians with an authoritarian parenting style. They can be controlling because they’re critical and punitive. But they can also be controlling because they’re acutely anxious. “Don’t climb on that! Don’t go any closer to the water! Don’t put that in your mouth!” Sound familiar? “Let me do that for you so you don’t hurt yourself!”
These cautions come from a place of love, but they’re also incredibly restraining to a child. And they might be teaching children that they’re not competent, independent, or masters of their own environment. Children of controlling, anxious parents may never get the chance to develop the self-confidence and autonomy that they need to handle threats on their own. The result? Environmental transmission of anxiety, i.e., anxiety caused by parents.
It’s Not Actually the End of the World: Coping Strategies for Parental Anxiety
First of all, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and family therapy are both highly effective treatments for anxiety. So there’s that. But meanwhile, what do you do when you’re not in a counseling session–or on psychiatric medication? And what can professional therapists teach us generally about not spreading anxiety to our children? So. Much. For example, parents can help block transmission with the following practical strategies:
Tell stories. Children learn through play and stories. A famous study of Inuit parenting demonstrates how important storytelling is to teaching emotional regulation. And the stories that you tell children about themselves have an outsized, memorable impact. Remind your kids of times when they overcame their fears, or even when they helped you overcome yours. Make your narratives playful–and a little dangerous. Kids love those elements.
Be emotionally transparent. You may not be equipped to explain to your children what’s happening while you’re suffering from anxiety, but during a quiet moment later, explain to your kids what you were feeling. If you tend to lash out when you feel panicked, tell your children that sometimes you seem angry when you’re actually worried. Be honest. Your kids will already know intuitively when something is emotionally amiss, so give them the language to wrap their heads around your anxiety. Otherwise they may fill in the blanks with the worst-case scenario.
“It’s important for kids to understand that adults experience big emotions too,” says Landon Sheriff, Licensed Professional Counselor at Thriveworks in Richmond, Virginia. “These experiences also give parents the ability to demonstrate how to cope with strong emotions.”
Reserve calm, quality time together. There are two ways you can go about this, and they both work wonders for counteracting anxiety in families.
- Tell your child that for five minutes of “special time” you will do whatever they choose without giving them direction or pointing out mistakes. And don’t break your promise! (This intervention is modeled on the Turtle Program for behaviorally inhibited children.)
- Identify something that relaxes you both, and do it together regularly to forge happy, tranquil memories. You could play UNO. You could snuggle on the couch and watch a cartoon from your childhood. You could listen to your favorite Beatles song and dance around the living room together.
Try not to accommodate their stress–or your own. If your child is beginning to exhibit anxious behaviors, consider this: Children need to learn how to endure emotional distress in order to grow up into resilient adults. When you’re anxious about them being anxious and you want to make them feel better right away, are you doing that to ease their discomfort, or for your own self-protection? Is it actually you who’s having the problem because your stomach literally hurts when your child is in pain? Or are you trying to save time by avoiding a tantrum?
Almost all (95%) of the parents of anxious children accommodate their children. High degrees of accommodation are associated with worse anxiety symptoms, impairment, and outcomes. Letting kids struggle can help them cope with fear and adversity in the long-term.
Make a worry box. This is a homemade box where you can both place your worries (either written or drawn on slips of paper) so you don’t have to carry them around with you.
Learn your triggers. If you’ve had an anxiety attack in the past while watching your child on the monkey bars, be mentally prepared next time you take them to the playground. Don’t avoid the playground, but have a plan in place for what to do if you get overwhelmed. And decide ahead of time at what point you’ll have to disengage. Make your partner or support system aware of your limits.
Stay in the present. As we all know, one of the wonderful things about children is that they tend to live in the present. You and your daughter may be walking the dog together, and you’re thinking about work stressors, or a warming planet, or a cement truck that may come barrelling around the corner at any minute. But what is your daughter thinking? She’s probably enjoying being with her dad or mom. She’s smelling the grass. She’s petting the dog. She’s looking for bugs. She’s practicing mindfulness without ever having been to therapy.
Encourage healthy risks. It’s good for both of you. In families, anxiety is often bidirectional. But so are coping skills. When you both start facing your fears in incremental doses (i.e., with exposure therapy), you can model stress tolerance for each other.
Don’t shield your kids from scary truths. A psychological study immediately after the 1989 Lomo Prieta earthquake showed that kindergartners who “drew the earthquake” realistically with images of destruction instead of rainbows and sunshine were physically healthier in the following weeks. The pediatrician who helmed the study thought that was because kids who reckoned directly with disaster felt less stressed. If you’re jumping through hoops trying to protect your kids from the darkness in life, your efforts may actually backfire.
Send them to daycare. Seriously. If you’re an anxious parent, it will afford your kids some relief from all the helicopters and bubble-wrap, and help them overcome their inhibitions.
Don’t Hide Your Nightmares, But Tell Happy Stories, Too
You’re not a bad parent for having an anxiety disorder. Plenty of children with anxious parents turn out brave, resilient, and well-adjusted. Yes, your kids will notice your anxiety. They’re extremely sensitive, observant creatures. But on the flipside, your hyperaware kids will also notice your healthy coping strategies.
You’re not going to be calm and neutral all the time. You’re occasionally going to slip up and lose your s**t. But always return to the funny stories you tell; return to the songs you sing together; return to the dog’s soft fur and the weird bugs in the grass. Try as you might, you can’t protect your kids or yourself from the future, but you can be with them in the moment, where all you need is love.