Anxious parents and young children

For some people, parenting can bring anxiety. There are many things to worry about with our children. We worry about their health, their development, their education.

But some of us are born with a tendency to be anxious. Even before we became parents we worried more than most people.

If we have a predisposition to anxiety, we need to be aware of how our nervous state affects or children. Young children look to parents for cues.  They need mom and dad to let them know what is safe and what is not safe. This is biological and hardwired into our brains and nervous systems. If a parent thinks and behaves as if the world is a dangerous place, even when there does not appear to be anything dangerous happening, the child will learn that there is plenty to worry about, even when things seem okay.

The neurobiology of early attachment

To explain very briefly, during early development, a child is not able to control his or her emotions. When a child feels unsafe, sick, or sad, the intensity and duration of these difficult emotions is regulated by the main attachment figure – usually the mother and/or father.

We all know an upset child can only be soothed by a parent. A well-meaning stranger or even family friends cannot soothe an upset child. In certain situations, as an anxious parent cannot sooth their child, the parent may actually upset the child even more with displays of fear, hostility or irritation. In these cases, it is very difficult for the child to calm down and feel safe and grounded again.

A calm parent is a soothing presence in a child's life.

How stress affects children

Research shows us that children of highly anxious mothers have more problems with sleeping, achieve lower levels of education, and experience a poorer quality relationship with parents.

Children of anxious parents are more likely to develop anxiety themselves. This is a result of both learning from the parent how to interpret situations in life as well as a genetic disposition.

How you can resolve stressful situations with your child

If you are an anxious parent, there are several things you can do to protect yourself and your child. Learning coping skills to reduce your own anxiety is immensely helpful.

You can model good coping methods for your child. For example, let's imagine that you and your child are running late for school or an appointment. In this scenario you can react in two different ways: You can be upset and angry. You can interpret the situation in a way that will make you feel overwhelmed by the pressures of life.  You can have an emotional outburst that takes you and your child most of the day to recover from.

Or, instead of having an emotional reaction, you can ask yourself if you are engaging in catastrophic thinking.

What is catastrophic thinking?

Catastrophic thinking happens when your mind jumps to the worst case scenario.

For example, you know you are going to be late. You imagine that when you and your child walk into the room, people will have been waiting for you and everyone will be angry that you are late. They will judge you. Your relationships will not recover.

These thoughts may not even be registering to your conscious mind, but they can still provoke intense emotion.  It is helpful to stop and observe how you are reacting to a relatively minor situation. You are also modeling your behavior to your child.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can help you recognize catastrophic thinking. It can teach you how to re-frame the situation completely. Rather than expect everyone to be angry that you are late, you can instead assume they will be understanding. Not only this, but everyone will be happy to see you when you get there and all is well.

Therapy for anxiety will greatly improve your own life and what's more, you can pass these anxiety-coping skills on to your child. A life spent worrying about things you cannot control brings with it many challenges that are unnecessary. Taking action to manage your anxiety is not as difficult as you may believe and does not always require medication. A good therapist will teach you how to reduce your anxious symptoms and help guide you and your child to a healthier state of being.

If you would like to learn more you are welcome to read more about anxiety on my website by clicking here.  I provide therapy for adults of all ages in Overland Park, KS.

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31 Jan 2019

By Caryn Hess, LPC

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