As a mom with clinical anxiety, I worry about passing it on to my son. Here's what experts say.

What parents should know about anxiety and kids. (Image: Topos Graphics for illustration)
What parents should know about anxiety and kids. (Image: Topos Graphics for illustration)

My husband and I are proud card-carrying members of the Millennials on Lexapro Club™ — as are most of our friends our age with kids. As it turns out, according to a new study focused on millennial medication use and mental health, 68% of us between the ages of 26 and 41 years old are on at least one prescription daily — with medicine for depression and anxiety being in most of our medicine cabinets and the most commonly reported. Of course, as a parent with anxiety, I am incredibly anxious about whether or not my 4-year-old son will develop anxiety and need medication as well.

It’s a nature versus nurture argument. Are we creating an anxiety-inducing environment for him daily? I know he can tell when something’s up when my husband and I are doing more nail biting than usual. Or is it just in the cards for him because my husband and I both have anxiety and he is predisposed? Here's what experts told me.

Is anxiety genetic?

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a psychologist, parenting coach, speaker and the author of The Tantrum Survival Guide, says even if both parents have diagnosed anxiety disorders — a situation she refers to as "genetic loading" — they’re not “doomed.”

“We certainly can't ensure that your child absolutely won’t develop anxiety, but we can decrease the likelihood,” Hershberg says. “[When both parents have anxiety] it's not an even playing field. So the same things you might see in your young child, you might want to pay closer attention to than someone else who doesn't have anxiety who sees those same things in their child, because the likelihood just increases when you've got that genetic loading there.”

Anxiety disorders develop via three pathways, according to Hershberg. One is genetics, and another is temperament. “If your child was born with an anxious temperament — sort of slow to warm up, fussy, a big startle response — that might mean they're more prone to develop anxiety,” she says.

And then the third pathway is environment and how we parent. “Obviously, we can't control for the first two, both of which make it more likely that anxiety will develop, but we can control for the third,” Hershberg says.

Demonstrate how you cope with anxious feelings

Kids are way smarter than we give them credit for. They’re little empathetic sponges and can sense when things are “off” with you and when you’re anxious, no matter how you try to hide it. Is there a way to effectively shield your child from your anxiety in certain situations?

"I tell parents that it’s unrealistic to expect that they can always hide their stress and anxiety from their kids," says Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, a psychologist, anxiety expert and the author of Mom Brain: Proven Strategies to Fight the Anxiety, Guilt and Overwhelming Emotions of Motherhood — And Relax Into Your New Self. “For starters, everyone gets stressed and anxious sometimes — and when kids observe those emotions in their parents, it helps them see that these feelings are normal and understandable. Kids can ‘clearly tell’ when we are stressed and anxious. They pick up on everything. It can be difficult to hide our feelings from them.”

DiMarco says that what we anxious parents need to focus on is modeling effective coping strategies for our kids, even if that seems difficult at the moment. “One of the most important of these is showing them that we are actively facing our fears, which is the basic principle behind exposure therapy,” she says. Tell them when you’re facing your fears and set an example. Are you afraid of flying? Book a flight for spring break and tell your child how you're not letting your fears get in the way of family fun.

Other effective coping strategies to model for your children include breathing exercises like belly breathing, taking a “mental time-out” or thinking about our emotions as a wave — they rise and fall, and it’s an ebb and flow. Remind your kids of these techniques if you see them getting anxious.

Early signs of anxiety disorder in children

Most kids will say they’re worried, anxious or scared, but more often than not, they show “emotional dysregulation,” says Hershberg.

Emotional dysregulation is just what it sounds like — difficulty regulating emotions, according to Medical News Today. It’s also when the response is not within a range of typical emotional responses to an event.

What you want to look for is how intense your child’s reactions to something is, how long this dysregulation lasts — both in the moment and over time — and if it’s impairing everyday life for your family or your child.

“Is this something that is easily managed within five minutes or so, or does it go on for half an hour?" Hershberg tells Yahoo Life. "Then similarly, have we been dealing with this for just a day or two, or weeks at a time? Is my kid not able to go to school, not able to have friends, not able to enjoy a weekend? Are they causing harm to themselves? Are they rigid when it comes to change? These are all kinds of the things we look at when we're looking at whether these symptoms or these behaviors and kids have reached a level that intervention might be warranted."

What to do if your child shows anxiety symptoms

If parents do observe anxious behavior in their kids, Hershberg recommends looking into the SPACE method established by Eli Lebowitz at the Yale Child Study Center; the acronym stands for “Supportive Parenting for Anxious Children’s Emotions." Lebowitz found a link between anxiety and an “accommodation cycle.” When kids are anxious, their caregivers tend to accommodate that anxiety by giving into their anxious behaviors and being an enabler because it’s so hard not to when your child is, as Hershberg puts it, “freaking out."

Herschberg says she’s worked with elementary-aged children who needed to hear the same speech from their parents assuring them that a robber wouldn’t break into their house. The speech was lengthy, including alarm placement, what would happen if the alarms went off and how the police would help. It had to be the same every night.

Accommodating would be the parent repeating this speech for their child every single night. Under the SPACE method, however, you could say all of this the first night, and if the child keeps asking for it again, you don’t accommodate that but rather trust your child to be able to handle the feeling of anxiety. You help them name their feeling and tell them it’s OK to have this feeling and that they can work through it. Remind them you’ll be right there for them because you know it’s lousy to feel that way. Taking this approach, Hershberg says, is an example of how parents can control their response to anxiety and help their children manage it.

But most importantly, when it comes to parents having anxiety and trying to parent tiny humans, checking in with yourself first is vital.

"If a parent is in a constant state of high anxiety, that’s a different story," DiMarco says. "Then the focus really needs to be on getting the parent effective treatment so that they can manage their anxiety more effectively. We don’t want our kids to live in an environment of unrelenting anxiety and fear.”

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