The effects of a parent’s anxiety on their child start innocently enough.
We tell our children to be careful from the time they are little and learning to move around on their own. For some parents, it may never pass beyond that basic parental reminder and request.
But for others, saying be careful foreshadows the weight of a myriad of worries that can create anxiety, rather than healthy caution, in our children.
How our anxiety affects our children
Being concerned about the choices, safety, and well-being of our children is a natural part of parenting.
The issue is not with having concerns. It’s not even necessarily about your own anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal part of life.
It can help us evaluate bad situations and get out of them, and it can help us perform better when we recognize it and acknowledge it.
The problem lies when we pass along our anxieties and fears to our children and fail to give them the tools to learn to manage them.
Without these tools, anxiety just festers and builds, creating a cycle of fear and avoidance.
What can anxious parents do to help their anxious children?
Letting your child know that anxiety is something you are working through and on is not a sign of weakness. In fact, talking with your child about it can be empowering for both of you.
So what can we do to help them?
Don’t allow your anxieties to create insecurities and fears in your child
Most anxiety is transferred from parent to child in the form of overinvolvement. We worry that our child can’t complete a task or activity safely or properly, and so we hover over them, correcting them in the hopes of keeping them from feeling failure or disappointment.
Unfortunately, overinvolvement increases fear, insecurities, and avoidance in a child, and decreases their feelings of being able to handle and manage situations on their own.
For example, you may have a fear of your child playing on a slide because you are afraid they will get hurt and will no longer want to go to the park again. So you hover over them as they climb the ladder, telling them to be careful at every step. The child, who started up the ladder filled with excitement, gets to the top, sees how high they are and now understands why you were so fearful and realizes they should be too.
What could have been a situation where a child realizes they are capable of experiencing something new and exciting is now a situation where a child feels insecure and fearful.
We need to allow our children to explore. It’s one thing to be watchful; it’s another thing to transfer our fears and anxieties onto our children.
Model the way
You can help empower your children as they deal with their own anxieties by acknowledging your own fears.
Show your child ways that you have managed and are managing your anxiety. Talk to them about what your fears and anxieties are and let them know what you are doing to work through them.
When our kids see us working through and managing fears and anxieties, it empowers them to know that they can do the same.
Admit when your anxiety gets the better of you
My anxiety has occasionally gotten the better of me in front of my children. Sometimes we end up laughing about it right away. Other times I have to back away and come back later to talk about it once we’ve all calmed down.
Apologizing is not a flaw. Telling your child that you know you let something get to you and handled it in a way that wasn’t such a good way helps them understand that as we work through anxiety it can sometimes be messy, but it doesn’t define who we are.
Ask/seek help when needed
If your anxiety is affecting your child’s emotional growth find someone to talk with. It might be a trusted friend, a spiritual mentor, or you might need to seek professional guidance.
Studies have shown that attending family therapy significantly decreases the chance of children developing anxiety disorders.
Let your child know this is a journey that you are still working on
Anxiety is always going to be with us. It may only creep up once in awhile, or it may be something that we have to face multiple times every day.
Help your child understand that managing anxiety is a journey that you will continually work on. Point out that there are always steps you can take to manage as you do.
It’s important for our children to understand that if and when any of us – child or adult – struggle with anxiety we can always talk about it with someone we trust, and/or try any of the tools in our anxiety toolbox.
No one has to try to manage their anxiety on their own.
Acknowledging how your anxiety is affecting your children is a good place to start.
As the parent, you owe it to yourself and your children to recognize the effects and take the steps to make sure your anxiety doesn’t become your child’s anxiety.