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Anxious Parents Raising Anxious Children

By Debra Kissen

There is a high likelihood that anxious adults will pass on their anxious chemistry to their children.  This is not a death wish for your child.  This simply means that some people are more sensitive to danger than others. Therefore, for parents to model facing fears and not letting anxiety boss them around may mean doing some work on themselves first.  I have seen many parents come in to discuss their children’s struggles with anxiety when they soon realize they face the same challenges.  There is often next a period of mourning, where parents feel guilty about passing on this pain to their children.  But there is no reason your children need to suffer the way you did.  The earlier they learn the tools to handle the life’s challenges the less long -term distress they will experience.

An additional challenge, when you struggle with anxiety and parent an anxious child, is the marital strain it can create.  One parent (most likely the parent who struggled with anxiety in their own life) may try to protect the child from their anxiety, knowing all to well how bad anxiety feels.  The other (and less anxious) parent may accuse the first parent of “babying” their child and either of causing the symptoms or at the very least of exacerbating them.  What often next unfolds is a power struggle between the two parents, as they attempt to either protect their child or offer up a heaping helping of “tough love”.  What is often lost in the battle is that they are both right and they are both wrong.  What is necessary to effectively parent an anxious child is balance.  You must compassionately push them forward, despite their protests, while acknowledging just how hard this task is and how brave they are.  Nothing likes all or nothing more than anxiety.  So to shrink anxiety down to size, a more nuanced approach is necessary than all protection or all tough love.

For a parent who has experienced very little anxiety is his or her life, it may look bewildering to you that your child is freaking out about a small thing, but to them, they may be facing a tremendous challenge.  When our fear brain is activated, our rational brain (otherwise known as the frontal cortex) goes off line.  So, if your child’s fear brain is telling them that getting dressed for school is an overwhelming task, screaming at them to get dressed is not going to help.  In fact, it will only make them feel more anxious, which will lead to them getting further stuck in inaction mode.

And for the parent who has struggled with his/her own anxiety, don’t be too coddling. Yes, your child is feeling true feelings of fear and discomfort but no, you need not and in fact must not let their fear call the shots.  Just because your child is hiding under the covers, stating school is too hard and that they can’t handle it, does not mean they should therefore not go.  When one’s brain is experiencing a false alarm and over estimating the likelihood of danger, we need to teach the fear brain that it is actually ok and not facing a true threat.  The way we do this is by facing a fear head on.  This is not a time for words, whether the words be of encouragement or threats or motivation.  This is a time for action.   Anxiety is a slippery a slope and if you give it an inch, it will take a mile. Therefore, the best way to nip childhood anxiety is to catch it early and to act compassionately AND aggressively. 

Dr. Debra Kissen is CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Center. Dr. Kissen specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)...

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