How to avoid transmitting anxiety to your children

This article was originally published by the Child Mind Institute

Witnessing a parent in a state of anxiety can be more than a disturbing time for children. Children look to their parents for information on how to interpret ambiguous situations; if a parent seems constantly anxious and scared, the child will determine that a variety of scenarios are unsafe. And there is evidence that children of anxious parents are more likely to show anxiety themselves, a likely combination of genetic risk factors and learned behaviors.

It can be painful to think that, despite your best intentions, you may find yourself stressing your own stress to your child. But if you’re dealing with anxiety and you start to notice that your child is behaving anxiously, the first important thing is not to get bogged down in guilt. “You don’t have to be punished,” says Jamie Howard, PhD, director of the Child Mind Institute’s Stress and Resilience Program. “It feels really bad to have anxiety and it’s not easy to turn it off.”

But the transmission of anxiety from parents to children is not inevitable. The second important thing to do is to implement strategies to ensure that you do not pass on your anxiety to your children. This means managing your own stress as effectively as possible and helping your children manage theirs. “If a child is prone to anxiety,” adds Dr. Howard, “it’s helpful to know this beforehand and learn the strategies to deal with it sooner.”

Manage stress with mindfulness

It can be very difficult to communicate a sense of calm to your child when you are struggling to cope with your own anxiety.

When we feel anxious, we begin to worry about what might happen in the future: all those “and ifs.” To avoid getting caught up in worries about the future, try to practice mindfulness, which is a technique for focusing on the present. Here are two common mindfulness techniques to try:

  • Tighten the muscles: Starting with your toes, pick a muscle and press it firmly. It counts up to five. Release and watch your body change. Repeat the exercise by moving up your body.
  • Belly breathing: Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Inhale slowly from the stomach (expand like a balloon) and exhale slowly (deflate).

You can try to practice mindfulness the moment you feel anxious, but it is also a good idea to set aside time to be aware each day. Regular practice will help you use your techniques more effectively when you really need them, and it can also make you feel calmer overall.

Learn your triggers

Pay attention to what triggers your anxiety. While feeling anxious is sometimes inevitable, we can also make it worse if we look at it. If you’re the one who jumps at worst when you have a tick in your throat, using WebMD can be even more alarming. Likewise, if you’re stressed about what’s happening in the news, spend time reading it, or even using social media, it can make you feel worse. Setting boundaries on when and how to relate to things that can cause your anxiety is a good idea.

If your anxiety is severe and practicing awareness and setting boundaries on your own does not help, consulting a mental health professional makes sense. A doctor can help you work through stress management methods that are tailored to your specific needs. As you learn to tolerate stress, you will in turn teach your child, who takes cues from your behavior, how to deal with situations of uncertainty or doubt.

“A lot of the treatment for children with anxiety,” says Laura Kirmayer, PhD, a clinical psychologist, “is actually teaching parents tolerance of stress. It’s a simultaneous process: it addresses parental anxiety and , then, as they also support and support the development of the child’s stress tolerance. “

Stress tolerance model

When you learn some stress management strategies that work for you, you can teach them to your child when he or she is anxious. If, for example, you are working to think rationally in times of stress, you can practice these same skills with your child. Tell him, “I understand you’re scared, but what’s the chance of something really scary happening?”

Try to stay calm and neutral in front of your child, even if you are working to manage your anxiety. Dr. Howard says, “Pay attention to your facial expressions, the words you choose, and the intensity of the emotion you express, because the kids are reading to you. They’re little sponges and they collect everything.”

Explain your anxiety

Even if you don’t want your child to witness every moment of anxiety you experience, you don’t need to constantly suppress your emotions. It’s okay, and even healthy, for kids to see their parents cope with stress from time to time, but you want to explain why you reacted the way you did.

Suppose, for example, that you lost your temper because you were worried about your child going to school on time. Later, when things are calm, say, “Remember when I was very frustrated in the morning? I was anxious because you were late for school, and the way I handled my anxiety was screaming. But there are other ways to handle it. Maybe we can find a better way out every morning. “

Talking about anxiety in this way allows children to feel stressed, Dr. Kirmayer explains, and sends the message that stress is manageable. “If we feel we have to constantly protect our children from being seen sad, angry or anxious, we are subtly giving our children the message that they are not allowed to feel, express or manage these feelings,” he added. . “Then also, in a way, we’re giving them an indication that there’s no way to handle them when they happen.”

Make a plan

Find strategies in advance to deal with specific situations that trigger your stress. You can even involve your child in the plan. If, for example, you are anxious to prepare your child to go to bed at a reasonable time, talk to him or her about how you can work together to better manage this stressful transition in the future. Maybe you can come up with a plan to earn points for a privilege every time you go through your nightly routine without protesting at bedtime.

These strategies should be used sparingly: You don’t want to put your child under the responsibility of managing your anxiety if it permeates many aspects of your life. But seeing you implement a plan to curb specific anxiety moments lets you know that stress can be tolerated and managed.

Know when to take off

If you know that a situation is causing you excessive stress, you may want to plan ahead to refrain from your situation so that your children do not interpret it as dangerous. Let’s say, for example, that dropping out of school fills you with anxiety. Finally, you want to be able to take your child to school, but if you are still in treatment, you can ask a parent or other trusted adult to take care of the delivery. “You don’t want to model that expression very worried and worried about separating from your children,” says Dr. Howard. “You don’t want them to think there’s anything dangerous about leaving them in school.”

In general, if you feel overwhelmed by anxiety in the presence of your child, try taking a break. Danielle Veith, a stay-at-home mom who posts a blog about her struggle with anxiety, will dedicate some time to herself and engage in stress relief activities when she begins to feel very anxious. “I have a list of tips for doing it right in this second to deal with panic, which I carry with me: walking, drinking tea, bathing, or just going out the door in the air.” she says. “For me, it’s about relying on the fact that anxiety will happen and only happen until it happens.”

Find a support system

Trying to be a parent while struggling with your own mental health can be a challenge, but you don’t have to do it alone. There is a lot of support online, on blogs, forums and social media. It is also important to have the support of the people in your life. These people can be therapists, parents or friends, anyone who intervenes when they feel overwhelmed, or even just offer words of support. “I’m part of a real support group, but I also have a network of friends,” says Veith. “I’m open with friends about who I am, because I have to be able to call them and ask for help. ”

Brigit Katz is a writer for Tina Brown Media’s Women in the World. His writings have appeared on,, Flavorwire and more.

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