Trickle-Down Anxiety: How Your Worries Can Impact Your Child

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Image via Katie Hurley

Stress and anxiety can be contagious, and parents need to be aware of how they handle these big emotions in the face of children.

Every family is different, and every family is up against unique stressors. From financial stress to academic struggles to medical issues and beyond, parents are no strangers to stress and anxiety. How parents cope with stress and anxiety, however, is an important issue.

Young children mirror the affect and feelings of their parents. In fact, this behavior can even begin in infancy. When parents of new babies are under stress, babies cry and fuss more often than when parents are calm and confident in response to stress. It makes perfect sense that parental anxiety is a risk factor for childhood anxiety.

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It's important to learn how to cope with anxiety so that kids do not internalize anxious thought patterns and behaviors. The best way to stop the trickle-down effect of anxiety within the family, is to learn and utilize adaptive coping strategies and teach those strategies to the kids.

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Image via Flickr/ Found Animals

Watch verbal cues

The problem with anxious thoughts is that they can snowball fairly quickly. You might have the nagging feeling that you left the front door unlocked one moment and find yourself stuck in a fantasy of a fatal car crash five minutes later. When people get stuck in anxious thought patterns, irrational fears become loud and overwhelming. And once those irrational thoughts begin, your whole demeanor shifts.

Irrational thinking and overwhelming anxiety can lead to a short temper, distraction, and a negative communication style. You might find yourself snapping at your child for tripping over a shoe and getting hurt.

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When parents project anxious thoughts and feelings onto their children, their kids grow up thinking that they can't do anything right. When parents engage in excessive worrying in front of the children, kids learn that the world is scary and they aren't safe anywhere. 

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Image via Flickr/ porschelinn

Watch non-verbal cues

Kids are always watching their parents, and they do pick up on non-verbal cues. Panic and anxiety can cause sweating, increased heart rate, dizziness, and shortness of breath. You might think that these silent symptoms are invisible to your kids, but chances are your facial expressions, lack of engagement, and distracted behavior paint a different picture.

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Be mindful of how you appear to your children when feeling anxious. Instead of trying to hide your anxious behaviors, be honest. In age-appropriate language, tell your kids that something has you a little worried and you need to take a few deep breaths and sit down for a few minutes to relax.

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Image via Flickr/ Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Try relaxation strategies

If you bottle up your anxiety day after day, you will end up in a panic at some point. You can't just will anxious feelings to go away, and the bigger the feelings become, the more of an effect they will have on your child when you finally do lose control. Try a few relaxation strategies throughout the day to help keep your anxiety in check:

  • Relaxation breathing: Slow, deliberate breathing can stop anxiety in its tracks. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for four, and breathe out for four. Visualize your favorite place while you breathe. Repeat.
  • Worry list: Keep a journal by your bed and write down your worry list at night. Get your feelings out and try to come up with one strategy to counter each worry.
  • Positive self-talk: Replace negative and anxious thoughts throughout the day. Each time an anxious thought creeps into your mind, replace it with something positive and productive. Write notes around the house to remind yourself to say something positive. Thinking happy thoughts is a great visual cue. 
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Image via Flickr/ A&M-Commerce

Get help

If you experience symptoms of anxiety more often than not, and your anxiety interferes with your family, your work, your social life, or your ability to parent your children, and function in the world for a period of two weeks, seek treatment from a licensed mental-health professional. Anxiety is treatable, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often the first line of defense.

Anxiety is common among parents. No parent should ever feel embarrassed or afraid to seek treatment. Seeking help and learning to cope with your anxiety is the sign of a parent who is strong enough to engage in self-care, and that is a great example to set for your children.

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Trickle-Down Anxiety: How Your Worries Can Impact Your Child

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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