How Anxiety In Parents Can Affect Children
Many of my clients describe the impact of being raised in an anxious home – where one or both parents were highly anxious. These parents might have suffered from the effects of either generalized anxiety, social anxiety, agoraphobia, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Due to the historical stigma of these disorders, many parents were never professionally diagnosed with a mental health disorder. It’s only later on in life, in adulthood, that these clients reported being are able to recognize and understand how anxious their mother or father were. Being parented by a person with anxiety has a significant lasting effect on mental health for many of my clients, both during childhood and into adulthood.
When we understand how anxiety operates, it focuses on the ‘what if’s” or ‘worst-case’ scenarios. Anxiety is driven by fight/flight responses and the assumption of an ‘imminent threat.’ Parenting from these assumptions leads to transferring messages to children, which integrates within them.
Anxious Parenting Tells Children
The world is unsafe and even dangerous
Avoidance is a safe strategy to cope
Extreme caution is required in ‘trusting’ others
Unknown outcomes and the unpredictable are to be feared
Controlling all aspects of a situational outcome secure your safety
Just stay home if its too difficult for you
Avoid taking any risks, as this is too unpredictable
Doing everything to perfection will help you feel safer
People pleasing will help to avoid any conflict
These types of messages from anxious parents re-enforce many avoidance strategies. It also inoculates these narrative messages into core beliefs.
Therefore children start to believe that school is not safe. Avoiding and school refusal become an appropriate and effective response for children to cope. Children may start to avoid engaging in the community, going to friend and other prosocial connection, as everything begins to feel unsafe.
Another possible scenario is that children learn that being perfect, and people pleasing is an effective coping skill to anxiousness. With this approach, avoidance of all conflict is managed by being ‘extra perfect’ or doing everything to please others.
All of these strategies are learned behaviours from anxious family systems as an attempt to manage anxiousness. Children raised in homes of an anxious parent or parents live a constrictive life, and this lead to the social construction of anxiousness into the child. These children grow up being less resilient, often struggling with social environments and have difficult to cope with daily living.
What to do if you if notice you are parenting from anxiety:
See a professional therapist to work on your worries
Identify how your anxious parenting is being transferred into your child
Notice the behaviours where you are re-enforcing avoidance into your child
Become aware of the fear messaging you might be developing in your family system that support the viewpoint of the outside world being unsafe, not trustworthy, and unpredictable
Teach your children to lean into fear
Support your children in not avoiding, but instead promoting the value of exposures to fear and encourage how exposure will take away fear itself
Challenge your children to think about fear from the “factual brain” versus their “emotional fear brain”
Encourage children to say “no” rather than people pleasing
Support your children in not being ‘perfect’ and promote “individual choice”