Does an anxious parent make an anxious child?

I think when parents are asking this question, what they’re really asking is is it all my fault? My answer is no, it’s certainly not all your fault.

Dawn Friedman MSEd

Hi, everyone. Thanks for tuning in. This week’s question is one I get asked a lot, probably more than any other question. Does an anxious parent make an anxious child? Short answer. No. Twin studies show us that you can take two children who are the same age, who are growing up in the same family, and who are having more or less the same experience and one may have anxiety and the other won’t.

This is because you can’t force someone to be anxious who is not prone to be anxious. I think when parents are asking this question, what they’re really asking is is it all my fault? My answer is no, it’s certainly not all your fault. I know that historically the psychiatric community blamed parents, particularly moms, but we’ve evolved beyond that. Right?

I don’t blame parents, and I don’t want you to blame yourself. Blame is not helpful or useful, and it has no place in helping parents figure out how best to support their anxious kids. Now the research does tell us that anxiety disorders can be inherited. If a parent has a brain that is prone to anxiety, that is a brain that is already predisposed to spot potential danger, because that’s really what anxiety is. They’re more likely to have a child whose brain is also prone to anxiety.

Now anxious brains make evolutionary sense. If we’re all hanging out together in the zombie apocalypse, we are absolutely going to want some anxious people on our team.

They’re going to know not to go down into the dark basement. They’re going to remember to pack a can opener with their end of the world supplies. They’re not going to take foolish chances. We know our Darwin, right? We can see why anxious brains have stuck around. So, yes, anxious parents are more likely to have anxious kids, but that’s because that’s how genetics work.

A better question might be: can an anxious person influence an anxious child. And that answer would be yes, absolutely. Parents influence their kids. So then we can ask how can an anxious parent influence an anxious child? That’s a much more useful question. One thing we need to understand is that anxiety is catching.

If you find yourself tensing up around certain nervous people then you already know this. I know for myself, I can often diagnose a client with anxiety just by the way I feel around them. When I’m sitting across from an anxious client, I catch their anxiety. I notice myself worrying that I’m not going to do a good job for them.

That my interventions are going to be useless. That I’m going to fail them as a therapist. And. That tells me. They’re anxious and I’m tuning into it. You yourself might find yourself getting irritated or annoyed or just more on edge around certain people, including your anxious child.

Or you’ll notice that your child acts up more with one parent than the other. And maybe it’s the more anxious parent. Maybe they’re catching anxiety from us and we’re catching anxiety from them. And we’re all revving up together. Children rely on their caregivers to tell them when it’s safe and when it’s not. And so they’re highly tuned into how we’re feeling. Think about it.

Children are literally dependent on us for their survival. No wonder that some of them are extra tuned in to make sure that their surroundings are safe.

Sometimes our modeling is subtle and sometimes it’s more overt. An example would be, if you jump, when you see a spider, while you’re teaching your child to jump, when they see a spider. That’s explicit modeling.

In the same way they watch us say, please, and thank you. And they learn to say, please, and thank you. Or they watch us carry a dish to the counter and they carry their dishes to the counter, or at least we hope they will eventually. And so in the same way, if they see us be afraid of something, then they are learning that thing is scary. That thing is dangerous.

But in a more subtle case, we might just maybe tense up a little bit when we’re talking to a person in authority, say, or a boss, a landlord. And our children, especially our most sensitive children. Will note the change in our voice and in our posture. And they’ll file that away. Oh, Okay. They’ll say to themselves, I need to be on my toes with that person.

Note that I said our most sensitive kids. Not all of our children are going to be as highly attuned. And that’s why I’m saying again, that you can’t cause your child to have anxiety. Your child is either prone to it or not. And then we may influence them through our own behavior.

If you have a highly sensitive anxious child and if you were a highly sensitive and anxious person, Again, you are likely passing some anxiety back and forth. It’s doesn’t make it your fault. It doesn’t make it your child’s fault. The patterns that appear in anxious families appear because it makes sense at first to accommodate your child. The child without anxiety will grow out of those accommodations naturally. Those accommodations make sense.

However, if we have a child with anxiety, those accommodations may become a trap. And then in hindsight, people might say to us, well, it’s your fault. You created it, you started it.

You never kicked him out of your bed. You never left them with caregivers, all of these things and that’s simply not true. It’s much more complicated than that. Because again, a child without anxiety will grow out of those accommodations. They may even push us to stop those accommodations and the child with anxiety may just become more entrenched.

Here’s an example. Many many kids are going to cry when they first get dropped off at preschool. Children without anxiety will acclimate and grow through it no matter what we do. They truly are the kids that you can leave and they’ll stop crime in a few minutes. And get right on with their playing

those are the ones. When the preschool teacher says, go ahead and leave. He’ll calm down. They really will. Children who are prone to anxiety may not calm down. They may rev up. They may cry more. They may cry so hard. They throw up and so their parents naturally will stay with them longer, or even pull them from preschool and say, you’re just not ready yet.

And for some kids that might be true, they might just not be ready yet. A child with anxiety though, may never be ready. Children with anxiety may need an extra push or extra different kinds of support. The things that we naturally do, like stay with them until they’re ready for us to leave will work for non anxious kids.

But for those kids who are anxious. Well, they might never feel ready for us to leave. And then we need to do the hard dance, the push and the pull of getting them to grow, even when they don’t want to. This does not come naturally to most of us. Especially, as I said, if we are also highly sensitive and anxious.

We may struggle to see our child’s ability to get past this anxiety sticking point. Again, no blame here. This is so complicated. And finding support that honors what is developmentally appropriate for our individual child, what is anxiety and informed and understands the patterns, and what lets us care for ourselves and our children.

Can be difficult. The thing I tell parents is that your parenting isn’t the problem. Your parenting is the solution. Just like you can model jumping when you see a spider. So you can model ways to manage and overcome anxiety when you see a spider. And so that child that is struggling to be left at preschool or that parent who is struggling to leave them.

They can be successful. Absolutely. But they will need help that honors, who they are and where they are in the moment.

This is good news, right? Dr. Ross Greene, when talking about parenting challenging kids always says kids do well when they can. Well, so do parents. We do well when we can. And sometimes we need tools to learn and practice new skills and do better. We can always level up.

If you would like help with your anxious child. Let me know

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