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I'm worried my own anxiety is rubbing off on my son

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

Will your kids inherit your anxiety?

The other day when our new puppy got hold of a second piece of already-chewed gum during our afternoon walk, my son totally lost it. He declared our walk over, promptly scooped up the puppy and started discussing ways the dog could get in his exercise without being outdoors. I watched as his anxiety level rose with his concern for the dog, and I wondered to myself, "Did he learn that from watching me?"

While I've always been a worrier — possibly ingrained into my Jewish DNA — it wasn't until I gave birth to my son that my real anxiety kicked in. It started with worrying just a bit more than usual over all of those first baby concerns. Was he warm enough? Too warm? Hungry? Full? Naps and sleep time always caused my stomach to twist up in knots, but not because he wouldn't sleep. Instead, I was worried about whether my infant son was still breathing. How many naps did I spend just staring at him, silently counting each rise and fall of his chest until his eyes eventually fluttered open?

My heightened anxiety remained well past the newborn stage. Even as I grew more comfortable and confident in my parenting, there was an underlying anxiety that bled into other aspects of my life. I tried to counter it at every corner, and miraculously, veered away from turning into a helicopter parent.

Yet, despite thinking I had a handle on my anxiety, I've started to see my son begin to exhibit some of my more neurotic tendencies. Most recently it's manifested with our new dog. Nearby our house is a popular dog park. It's set on many acres of land with plenty of woods and open spaces for dogs to frolic to their hearts' content. My son, however, can't handle going to the dog park because his anxiety level skyrockets when we allow our puppy to go off the leash. The one time we took him with us to the park, he was close to tears worrying about what would happen if the dog didn't come back when we called.

When we take our dogs for walks, my usually highly distracted son is like a hawk, scanning the pavement for wads of chewed up gum or other things that are highly appealing, yet potentially dangerous, for a pup. He turns into the ultimate helicopter parent, hovering and keeping a close watch, and if the dog does manage to sniff out something dangerous, the panic sets in — and if he can't work through it, it ends up in the saddest of uncontrollable tears.

I know how crippling anxiety can be. How hard it can be to just "change your thoughts," or "lighten up." So, I don't tell my son to do either of these things. Instead, we talk about why we worry, what we can have control over and what we can't. I offer him some coping techniques and he's happily taken to some of them.

So far, the majority of his anxiety has focused mainly on the dog, and hasn't popped up in other aspects of his life. It hasn't disrupted his behavior in general, his sleeping or eating habits or his schoolwork. Perhaps this is just how he's responding to the big change of a new (furry) family member, and over time, the anxiety will disappear. Or, perhaps, like with my own postpartum anxiety, it's here to stay. Though I think that instead of worrying too much over all the worry, I'll focus instead on building up my son's anti-anxiety toolkit, and be there to both empathize with and support him.

More on children and anxiety

Recognizing anxiety in your children
Could your child have an anxiety disorder?
Ways to reduce kids' anxiety

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