Anxiety is a normal part of being a parent. From dealing with countless unknowns to being in charge of other people’s lives, there is always plenty to worry about. But some parents who live with anxiety (both diagnosed and undiagnosed) beyond day-to-day nervousness may also be concerned about whether they can pass their anxiety down to their kids. While the answer depends on several factors, there is a strong correlation between anxious parents and anxious kids.
Of course, you aren’t immediately going to make your kid anxious by letting them see your own experience with anxiety — but understanding how parent-child relationships fit into the larger picture of anxiety is powerful for having a better foundation for coping with the condition.
Can anxious parents create anxious kids?
In short, yes, psychiatrist Dr. Charles Sophy tells SheKnows. This correlation typically happens for two reasons: genetics and environment. Sophy says kids that live in an environment rooted in anxiety tend to develop similar traits — especially since genetics can reinforce it.
But it’s not just the family environment that influences the outcome. Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist from Doctor On Demand, tells SheKnows that since we live in a world that contains anxiety, becoming anxious is almost unavoidable.
However, whether or not a child becomes an anxious person depends on their coping skills to ward off anxiety. This becomes a concern when anxious parents are modeling inadequate coping mechanisms. As a result, Mayer says a child is likely to grow up with inadequate coping mechanisms and be very susceptible to anxiety disorder.
Knowing that anxiety tends to run in families, many parents wonder how they should address these issues with their kids. “You don’t want to hide yourself from your kids, because that makes them even more anxious,” says Sophy. “But you also don’t want them to see you at your absolute worst,” he adds.
The most important thing, he says, is to be real with your children — age-appropriately. “The last thing you want is for your child not to trust you emotionally,” Sophy explains. This can create confusion for them, especially if you’re telling them that nothing’s wrong. “They sense it, they see it, and they’re going to ask,” he says. “And if you say nothing’s wrong, all you’re really doing is teaching your child to have a confused radar for emotions,” he adds.
How can parents keep their kids from developing an anxiety disorder?
Decreasing the odds that your child will develop an anxiety disorder (or making an existing one worse) comes down to two things: modeling and teaching. “Modeling is key,” says Mayer. He believes that if your children see you handling anxiety poorly, there’s a good chance they will copy how you deal with and approach daily living. And as he points out, anxious parents often approach the world with fear, insecurity and low confidence — all things parents are trying to prevent in their children.
Teaching is the other half of the equation. “Teach them how to cope with difficult situations and show them what works for you,” Mayer explains. He also recommends giving them problem-solving techniques. “This is all done by open and frequent communication between you and your child,” he adds.
How can parents spot signs of anxiety in their child?
How a parent experiences anxiety may look a lot different from their child’s experience. That’s why it’s important to understand the red flags to look for in kids. To know if your child is dealing with a possible anxiety disorder, Sophy recommends assessing their SWEEP.
If three or more of these are off track, it might be time to seek help:
Sleeping: Look at their sleeping habits. Do they fall asleep? Do they stay asleep? Are there changes within that?
Work (schoolwork): Academically and socially, how are they functioning? Is there a change from their usual stable pattern?
Eating: Are they eating what they usually eat? Are they isolating themselves and not wanting to come down for dinner?
Emotions: How are they dealing with their emotions? Are they reactive more than they were? Or are they isolated and quiet? Has there been an emotional shift?
Play: Have they pulled themselves back from doing their hobbies or participating in the things they enjoy?
As parents, we do have the ability to impact the environment our kids are raised in and, hopefully, break the cycle of worry.
A version of this story was published December 2018.
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