Anxiety has a trickle-down effect within families. It makes perfect sense. Little kids are like little sponges. They mirror our happiness, they mirror our sadness and they mirror our uncertainty. In fact, many parents get a wake-up call when they look deep into their child's eyes and see their own stress and worry staring back at them.
Parental anxiety is a risk factor for childhood anxiety. Anxious parents tend to display increased levels of uncertainty, criticize their children and themselves more often and demonstrate more fear and show less warmth and affection toward family members. Anxiety can really get in the way of raising happy kids. It's important to take steps to keep parental anxiety in check so that it doesn't trickle down to the kids.
Communication style matters
Have you ever noticed that anxious thoughts become more and more irrational when you get stuck in an anxious thought pattern? It might start as something small, but one worry leads to the next and, before you know it, your stress level is through the roof. This kind of thinking can cause distraction and a short temper. You might even find yourself snapping at your kids for no good reason, simply because your anxiety level is high.
Communication style matters. Children internalize our behaviors. When children are repeatedly yelled at or belittled by parents, they feel like failures. They internalize the message that they can't do anything right. When anxious parents project their anxious thoughts onto their children, children internalize the message that the world is a scary place and fear lurks around every corner. Be sure to communicate with your children in a calm and loving manner, and avoid projecting your worries onto them.
Watch non-verbal cues
Kids also pick up on non-verbal cues. If a panic attack triggers increased heart rate and dizziness and leaves a parent feeling out of control, a child will pick up on those silent symptoms. Kids watch their parents very carefully, even when they appear to be engaged in play. If you shy away from certain toys because they trigger anxious thoughts or refuse to read certain books because they make you worry, your child will wonder about the potential dangers in his own home.
Be mindful of your body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal reactions to stressors when in the presence of your children.
A brain dump is a great way to vent your anxious thoughts in the moment without projecting them onto your children. Keep a worry journal handy so that you can take five minutes to write out your fears and worries as they arise throughout the day.
Talk to your child about your journal. Use age-appropriate language to share with your child that writing down your thoughts helps you cope with your stress and stay present. Kids understand more than their parents think. Showing your child that you are taking control of your worries is a powerful lesson. It also models adaptive coping strategies for your kids.
Anxiety can be overwhelming and it's very hard to shield children from moments of panic. More often than not, anxious parents feel like they lose control when anxious thought patterns arise. Talk to your kids about your worries. Anxiety can be genetic (although it's not a guarantee), so it might actually help your child to make sense of her own feelings.
It is essential to use age-appropriate language and give brief but honest descriptions when sharing this kind of information with children. You don't want to burden them with your anxiety, but you want them to know that sometimes your "worry brain" becomes very loud and you have to take steps to get your "happy brain" back on top.
If you feel anxious more often than not and have difficulty coping with anxious thought patterns, seek the help of a licensed mental health professional. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be very beneficial, as can other forms of talk therapy. If anxiety appears to affect the whole family, family therapy is essential. Anxiety can be managed when properly treated, but it can have devastating effects on families when left unchecked.