Parents Passing on Anxiety to Kids

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The mom tells the kids to get dressed for school while she gets ready for work. Fifteen minutes later, the mom is ready to take the kids to school, but they still have their pajamas on. Looking at her watch, the mom knows this is going to make her late for work.

She yells, “I told you that you needed to get dressed! Now we are going to be late and bad things happen when you are late. Why can’t you do anything I tell you to do?”

The kids look up from the television startled and then frantically start getting their clothes on while their mom continues yelling in the background.

While it appears that the mom is lashing out in anger, it is more an issue of her underlying anxiety and tendency to worry about the little things. The mom not only lashes out at her kids when overly stressed, but she will also frequently worry over the possibility of her kids having accidents while they do everyday activities.

Many adults struggle in dealing with their anxiety. When those adults become parents, it seems like their anxiety only increases as they begin to worry about their children too. Unfortunately when children witness a parent overreacting to anxiety, it can be more than just unsettling for the children.

Children frequently look to their parents for information about how to interpret unfamiliar situations. If a parent appears anxious and fearful, children will figure out that this is a situation that is unsafe and should be avoided. This is one way that a parent can pass on anxiety to her children.

However, a parent can take a couple of steps to avoid passing on her anxiety. The first step is for a parent to not feel guilty when a child starts behaving in an anxious manner since anxiety can be very difficult to control.

A second step is for the parent to start enacting strategies to make sure her anxieties are not passed onto the children over the long-term. This requires the parent to manage her own stress as well as possible and then helping her children to manage their anxieties. A parent’s efforts to cope with her anxiety can serve as a model for her children to copy and incorporate into their own coping style.

A parent can start the process by putting together a stress management program. This can include using mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and confronting worrying thoughts by thinking about how likely they are to occur. If the parent’s anxiety is too hard to control on her own, then she may benefit from consulting with a mental health professional who can work on stress management techniques that best suit the parent’s needs.

When a parent does experience stress, it is important to try and stay calm and collected in front of the children. However, there will be slips and occasionally the anxiety and stress will come out. This is okay as children need to see their parent deal with stressful situations. Once the event has passed and everything has calmed down, the parent should talk about her anxiety and explain why she reacted the way she did.

Anxiety does not need to be passed down from generation to generation. There are concrete steps that parents can take to bring their own anxieties under control. This will allow parents to model appropriate ways to cope with stress and help them assist their own children’s efforts to cope.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on April 5, 2015

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