Why does my child’s anxiety make my anxiety worse?

This is such a good question and gives us the opportunity to do a deep dive into anxiety in general and child anxiety in particular so let’s go ahead and do that, let’s dive in.

Ok first of all, anxiety is catching and it’s meant to be. We are meant to live in community and if something is threatening the community — like if we are all sitting around together, around the fire, relaxing after a long day hunting and gathering — and a lion creeps up on us and one of us hears a sound and sits up all alert, the rest of us are supposed to catch their tension so we get on high alert, too. It’s a safety issue.

You know how sometimes you’re sitting in your car at a red light and you turn to look at the person in the car next to you and they feel you looking and stare right back at you? We are all attuned to each other. We are sensitive to the people around us and most sensitive to the people to whom we are closest. 

I thought about this a lot over the past few years when things have been scary for a lot of people. Our society is more anxious right now and has been for some time. We catch anxiety from each other and even if we’re having a particular experience that isn’t very anxious for whatever reason, we might find ourselves feeling on higher alert, a little more tense, a bit more irritable when we go out around other people. 

This is another reason why I expect to field more phone calls from parents about their anxious kids during back to school time. It’s not just the transition, although there’s that. It’s not just the greater demands of school, although there’s that, too. But there is also the fact that anxiety is catching and kids catch it from each other and we catch it from them. 

Anxiety, in other words, begets anxiety.

So that’s one reason why your child’s anxiety makes you anxious is that it’s supposed to. 

Beyond that there are a couple of other reasons why your child’s anxiety might make you anxious and these are super important to unpack when we’re planning how we want to address their anxiety. 

The first is that maybe you’re anxious about the same things. So say your child is really worried about passing their test. Maybe you worry about grades, too. Maybe you worry about their ability to pass the test. Maybe when they say, “I think my teacher doesn’t like me and is going to be extra hard when they grade my essay responses” we start to worry that this might happen.

We might know we’re worried about the same things they are but we might not know it. We might be so caught up in their worry and whining or tears or asking for help that we don’t notice that we share their worry. That can make it difficult to address it. We might start problem solving, like encouraging them to study harder when studying harder isn’t actually the issue. The issue is the worry. This can be especially true for perfectionist parents — because perfectionism is a symptom of anxiety — whose response to their own triggered worry is to run from that worry. That is to say, your child is afraid of failing, we are also afraid of their failing, and so we run from the idea of failure whether or not that is a realistic fear.

Our anxiety may make it difficult for us to recognize it as an unrealistic fear. 

Ok, so that’s two reasons. 

Now there’s another one and this one is the most common reason parents reach out to me for help. And that is that their child’s anxiety triggers their own anxiety not about the fears the child has but about their fear that their child can’t handle it. 

Parents don’t always recognize this as anxiety. They experience it as frustration, anger, overwhelm, or discouragement. They tell me things like, “I’m afraid that my child can’t handle their anxiety” or “I’m afraid my child’s anxiety will derail them” or “I’m afraid my child will be traumatized if I I make them do the thing they’re scared of” or even “I’m afraid of my child’s behavior when I push them about the thing that makes them anxious.”

In those cases it’s our worry — the “I’m afraid …” part that we need to address first.

What we know about anxiety is that it’s a family systems issue. The child does have anxiety, that is not the family’s fault, it’s not the parents’ fault, it’s not the child’s fault. It’s a fact and what happens is that the system of the family starts to shape itself around the child’s anxiety. This is normal and generally speaking it is healthy for systems to shape themselves to support its members. It’s only an issue when the system is supporting dysfunction and we don’t always know that this is happening until we look around and say, Shoot, our family is really stuck. 

Starting with the parent doesn’t mean we’re blaming the parent, it means that we’re acknowledging that the parent has the position and the power to adjust their own reactions and behaviors in order to adjust the system, which shifts to support the child in growing instead of keeping the child stuck.

It’s big work, I won’t lie. It’s not easy and it’s important that the parent takes care of themselves while they’re doing it. To take care of your child’s anxiety means understanding where your anxiety has become part of the issue so that you can address it and so address your child’s. It’s one of those things where when you start to see it, you can really see it. And that makes it much easier to address it. 

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