Can anxious parents contribute to the anxiety levels in their children? Unfortunately, the short answer is yes. When you factor in genetics and learned behavior, the odds quickly start stacking up against you.
But before you start placing blame on yourself and believing that an anxiety disorder is inevitable in your child, it’s important to recognize that as parents, we do have the ability to impact the environment our kids are raised in and hopefully, break the cycle of worry (or at least put a kink in it).
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 1 in 8 children is affected by an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million American adults age 18 or older.
SheKnows talked with Dr. Debra Kissen, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Light On Anxiety Treatment Center, to discuss how parents who struggle with their own anxiety can help their children.
SheKnows: Are children of anxious parents more at risk of developing an anxiety disorder?
Debra Kissen: Yes, children of anxious parents are more at risk for developing anxiety disorders. This is because they will have both a genetic predisposition to developing an anxiety disorder and their environment may emphasize hyper-vigilance to risk cues. It is important to emphasize that being at risk for developing an anxiety disorder does not mean with certainty that they will develop one. Creating a healthy, balanced environment where children learn to tackle their fears can prevent the development of an anxiety disorder.
SK: How can parents help coach their kids through anxiety?
DK: As a parent, it’s important to model facing your own fears while you help your child break down the fears they are facing. Parents can help kids break down fears so that kids can create a fear hierarchy. This encourages them to take baby steps towards facing their fear triggers.
It may also be helpful to set up a “brave system” so that parents can reward brave behaviors demonstrated by their child. Each time a child takes a chance towards facing a fear, they get a point to be used towards something special (points are earned for effort, not based on outcome).
And finally, if fear or anxiety is beginning to impair functioning, it is important that parents consult with a professional. Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy are used to treat anxiety in children and are an effective and efficient form of therapy that can quickly teach children how to move past their anxiety.
SK: What are some things parents can do to keep their own anxiety in check when they’re interacting with their child?
DK: You can always fake it until you make it and act as if you are not anxious — when you’re entering a new social setting, for instance, or riding a roller coaster at an amusement park. At the same time, there's nothing wrong with talking out loud about your fears and modeling for your child that you are afraid of something, but at the same time, you realize it is very unlikely that something bad will happen. That you're going to take a chance despite your fear and prove to yourself that you are strong and can handle the challenge.
SK: How common is it for parents and kids to be treated for anxiety at the same time?
DK: At my treatment center, we often work with both the parents and the child. We offer training to teach parents how to tolerate their child feeling fear without rushing in to save them through accommodation or reassurance. We then work one-on-one with the child to develop healthy coping skills. We try to pair parents and children up with separate therapists and then come together as a team to review and brainstorm next steps.
SK: How should parents talk to their kids about their own anxiety?
DK: It is important for parents to separate out their own fears and their own experience with anxiety with the journey ahead for their child. Just because a child is expressing fear of going to a birthday party does not mean they are feeling the same terror or fear of social rejection that a parent may have felt when they were a child or adolescent. Each person's journey is different, and it’s important to try to separate out one's own fears from the experience that their child is having.
Once a parent learns that they need not let their own fear boss them around and cause them to miss out on life, then they can pass this important lesson on to their children. Fear and anxiety may be uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous states and they need not cause one to avoid living life to the fullest.