Anxiety is one of the common human emotions, and at normal levels, prepares us to successfully anticipate and meet challenges. However, the modern-day changes in lifestyle have led to an increase in the levels of anxiety. Excessive levels of anxiety can destabilise an individual and prevent him from functioning properly.
When it comes to anxiety in parents, along with the other drawbacks associated with anxiety, there is also the risk that parents can pass their own anxiety on to their children. Marcy Burstein and Golda S Ginsburg published a study titled, ‘The Effect of Parental Modeling of Anxious Behaviors and Cognitions in School-Aged Children: An Experimental Pilot Study’, in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy (2010). According to them, “Children reported greater levels of anxiety, anxious cognitions, and desired avoidance of the testing situation when their parents modeled anxious behavior and cognitions relative to when they modeled non-anxious behavior and cognitions.”
If you are a parent who suffers from anxiety, read on to understand how your anxiety can adversely affect your child and how to prevent your child from taking on your anxiety.
How anxiety manifests in children
Children lack the language skills needed to express a complex emotion like anxiety. Yet, some of the ways in which anxiety manifests in children are:
- Irrational thoughts
- Tendency to worry or dread
- Increased likelihood of experiencing distress
- Poor sleep
- Trouble concentrating
- Nervousness and fear
How parents pass on their anxiety to their children
Children learn by observation and experience. When children observe their parents, they tend to absorb their parents’ emotions and mirror it in their own behaviour. Some of the ways through which parents pass on anxiety to their children are:
- By modelling fearful and avoidant behaviour (for example, showing stress when dealing with strangers)
- Through words uttered under stress (for example, “I hate maths”, “I am not comfortable in a bus.”)
- By being overinvolved or overprotective or both (helicopter parenting or being fearful of the child’s safety)
- By being overly critical of whatever the child does
- By being withdrawn or distant (showing lack of warmth)
How parents can avoid passing on their anxiety to their children
- Vent your feelings: One of the best ways to get rid of a negative emotion is to let it out. Take some time out every day to write about thoughts that make you feel worried and anxious. This will help relieve the accumulated stress and help you rationalise your thoughts. You can share this diary with your child as well and tell her how you take control over your feelings. She can also use this strategy if she ever feels anxious.
- Learn to relax: Learning to relax by managing your stress can prevent you from unloading your emotions in front of your child, or others. You can browse the Internet to learn some easy but useful relaxation techniques that suits your needs, like pursuing a hobby, or engaging in yoga or meditation.
- Do not scare your child: Excessive anxiety can make you imagine dangers much beyond the reasonable levels. For example, if your child picks up a knife, you may give him a long lecture about how dangerous his action could be. Catastrophising simple acts can make your child feel scared and give rise to anxiety.
- Control your reactions: Most anxious parents overreact to situations. Their gestures, expressions and words can cause the child to feel anxious and unsure. Practise reacting in a calm and reasonable manner even under stress. This way, you will be setting a good example for your child to follow when facing unsettling situations.
- Communicate with your child: Sometimes, when you are feeling anxious and are not behaving as you would normally, and your child is around and observing you, it is a good idea to explain your behaviour to her. Not only will it help her understand what you are going through, but will also help her link it with your actions and clear the confusion about why you are acting ‘strange’. However, while sharing your thoughts with your child, use age-appropriate language for her to understand what you mean.
- Get help: If you feel that you are unable to control your anxiety or feel anxious quite often, seek help from an expert. There are many forms of therapies available to address your situation.
Parents play a very important role in the emotional development of a child. Overbearing anxiety in a parent can affect a child’s emotional health, and that of the family, in many adverse ways. Therefore, it is important to address this issue at the earliest and manage it in the best possible way.
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