Our children. We love them and want to give them the best of everything and more. We want our kids to have unshakeable self-worth and self-esteem, confidence in navigating the world, social skills to make the best of friends and networks, healthy bodies to keep them moving, and enough empathy and humor to have a great personality. However, the way we interact with our kids can set the standard for coping with stress. Parenting is the largest contributing factor to the way kids navigate the world, so when a child presents with anxiety it can bring up a number of emotions or concerns, especially for parents recognizing their own anxiousness in their children.
Types of Childhood Anxiety
Anxiety is a normal part of life. There is healthy anxiety and stress, associated with upcoming tests or big events. Anxiety can even be helpful in alerting us to dangerous situations, such as avoiding the big, barking dog or keeping away from hot flames. This normal anxiety helps us make informed decisions and weigh whether a situation is serious or not. As children begin to navigate the world on their own, they, too, experience the range of anxiety and its impact on their functioning. These are just a few of the types of clinical anxiety disorders that children may face.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a mental health condition characterized by excessive and persistent worry. This disorder is common amongst both adults and children. Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder seemingly have a lot of fear with no real or direct cause. These children will worry about future events, fitting in, past experiences, or achievement. Generalized Anxiety Disorder develops through a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Symptoms of GAD in children look like:
- Excessive and persistent worry about everyday events, such as school performance, social situations, or family issues.
- Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep due to anxiety.
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, or muscle tension.
- Avoidance of certain situations or activities due to anxiety, most notably, school.
- Constant seeking of reassurance from parents or caregivers.
- Irritability, restlessness, or difficulty concentrating.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation Anxiety Disorder is a mental health disorder that used to be an exclusive diagnosis for children. This has recently changed to allow diagnosis in adults. In order to meet the diagnosis for Separation Anxiety Disorder in children, the child must exhibit symptoms before the age of eighteen and persist in these symptoms for at least four consecutive weeks. Separation Anxiety Disorder is characterized by intense and excessive fear of being away from a caregiver or attachment figure. This may be the only anxiety disorder directly caused by a parent although the parent is not to blame for its existence.
Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder are known for being extremely clingy, even becoming uncomfortable when their caregivers are only a room away. These children typically have an extremely difficult time with age-appropriate changes, such as going to preschool or daycare. This can result in screaming tantrums, physical clinging, and other avoidance behaviors. During these transitional periods, children with Separation Anxiety Disorder create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where they fear the unknown and inability to be safe, which leads to tantrums that make them unappealing to other children. Parents can prevent Separation Anxiety Disorder with early intervention, such as routine-setting and providing safe distance.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder in children look like:
- Extreme distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from attachment figures.
- Persistent and excessive worry about the safety and well-being of attachment figures.
- Refusal to go to school or participate in activities that require separation from attachment figures.
- Physical complaints such as stomach aches or headaches when anticipating or experiencing separation.
- Nightmares or difficulty sleeping without attachment figures nearby.
Panic disorder describes a mental health condition where a person experiences out-of-the-blue and unprompted panic attacks. Panic attacks typically develop in late adolescence and early adulthood, though some children are known to experience them. A panic attack is characterized by intense episodes of fear or discomfort. These episodes may last up to half an hour. Panic disorder is hard to diagnose in children, as it can look like a regular childlike tantrum. Anxiety attacks are similar to panic attacks but have an associated cause. Many school-age children and teens experience these intense episodes, especially related to test-taking or public speaking.
Symptoms of Panic Disorder in children look like:
- Racing heartbeat or palpitations.
- Sweating or chills.
- Shortness of breath or feelings of choking.
- Chest pain or discomfort.
- Trembling or shaking.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness.
- Nausea or stomach distress.
- Fear of losing control or dying.
Parents with Anxiety
Having children can induce incredible anxiety. Kids are a huge responsibility and it takes years before they can be left alone to their own devices. Even when kids can operate on their own, caregivers may worry about the child’s ability to make safe, well-informed decisions. Clinical anxiety, that is, anxiety that impacts daily functioning, comes from both genetic and environmental factors. Parents who have been diagnosed with anxiety may feel especially pressured to prevent this condition from developing in their children. It may become a fixation for parents to prevent it in their child, especially if parents have anxious parents of their own. In fact, about one-third of children with anxiety have parents with diagnosed anxiety. This anxiety about anxiety, so to speak, creates a familial culture of distress and worry. Neuroticism, a domain of personality, is a trait disposition to experience negativity, including anger, anxiety, self‐consciousness, irritability, emotional instability, and depression. This speaks to the environmental and personality aspect of passing anxiety to the next generation. On a biological level, there are several neurotransmitter imbalances that relate to anxiety, which can be passed on genetically. Additionally, some parents may be unaware of the fact that they are dealing with conditions such as ADHD or autism, which are passed on biologically.
By now, you’ve likely heard of the popular phenomenon called “helicopter parenting.” This phrase describes a parent who hovers over his or her child and pays the child excessive attention and worry then swoops in at the first sign of trouble. A helicopter parent is over-involved and highly protective, acting inappropriately for the child’s developmental age. This parent may interrupt the child’s daily operations, interrupting playtime, schoolwork, or other various activities. Some helicopter parents intervene when the child is visibly uncomfortable, while others merely perceive that their child might possibly experience some natural discomfort and choose to intervene.
Helicopter parenting is a well-intentioned parenting response. Of course, as a parent, you would want to prevent any harm from befalling your child and the thought is that earlier intervention keeps worse trouble from happening. This approach is natural for certain developmental stages, who learn from healthy failure. Healthy failure refers to the idea that when we fail, we learn how to better tailor our approach to the world. This ranges from learning how to tie one’s shoes to prevent tripping over the laces to having a lukewarm response to a presentation. There is no such thing as healthy failure for an infant, whose needs must constantly be monitored to prevent infection, illness, or even death. However, the concept of healthy failure must be applied to every other life stage and meet its natural consequence. If a child does not ever learn to fail in a healthy manner, this creates a disconnect in ability to cope. Failure becomes unknowable and possibly insurmountable. This attitude creates the seedlings for feelings of anxiety.
In action, helicopter parenting adjusts along with developmental stages. For children, parents may rip crayons out of their child’s hands and correct them to color certain areas in a certain color, stunting creativity. A parent may force stroller time or hand-holding for longer than the child desires to prevent falls, scrapes, or bruises. For school age children, parents might ignore a child’s wish to learn archery in favor of a more practical or common sport like softball. They may go directly to another child’s parent to address interpersonal problems between the kids. As the child becomes a teen, the parent may tell the child which universities to apply to, submit job applications on their behalf, or completely rewrite essays. In a vacuum, these may seem helpful or considerate of the child’s future. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these actions, however repeated action blunts many of the developmentally-appropriate learning milestones that come with these healthy failures along with optimism and creative thinking.
Continued interruption of a child’s functioning, failure or otherwise, can create long-term, unplanned effects that will continue to impact the child even when the parent is not around. In early childhood and pre-pubescent school age, children get their sense of bearings around how the world works. They accept the boundaries and rules set by parents. If a child learns at age 4 that his mother will do his homework for him if he whines about the difficulty, he will have accepted this as a fact by the time he is 9 or 10. This may also come along with Mom choosing clothes and telling the child who is allowed at his birthday parties. However, when the child reaches puberty, there is a natural desire for independent choice and decision-making. If the mother refuses to let the child take on some responsibilities, the child will build some resentment, either consciously or unconsciously.
Some may argue that the child who builds resentment for a controlling parent and expresses it through rebellion will be better adjusted than the child who silently conforms to parent wishes. This is where we see the development of anxiety, particularly as related to the helicopter parent. Children who conform learn that their desires and wishes do not matter. This attitude shift can be traumatic and can result in anxiety, depression, or Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
How Parents Can Avoid Passing on Anxiety
Parents with a diagnosed anxiety disorder may worry about passing it on to their child, whether genetically or through learned behaviors. And, while parents are unable to control genetic factors, there are several environmental and relational habits that parents may be able to share with their children to prevent a larger anxiety issue.
First, and maybe most importantly, parents must address their own mental health issues. Children are highly perceptive. They can tell if something is off with their parents’ emotions, even if they don’t fully understand them. If parents are constantly anxious, for example, their children may develop anxiety as well. It’s essential that parents prioritize their own mental health by seeking professional help with therapy or medication, practicing self-care, and developing coping mechanisms.
Parents should also strive to provide a safe and secure environment for their children. Children who feel safe and secure are less likely to develop anxiety. Feelings of warmth and security prevent children from dropping into survival mode. Children in flight, flight, fawn, and freeze are operating purely from survival and cannot reach their full potential. Parents can create a safe environment by being consistent, setting clear boundaries, and being present for their children. Children need to know that their parents are there for them and will support them no matter what.
Parents can also avoid passing on anxiety by teaching their children coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and anxiety. These coping mechanisms can include breathing exercises, meditation, movement, creative outlets, and other relaxation techniques. Developing coping mechanisms early in life can help prepare children for life’s continued stressors.
Parents strive to avoid being overprotective. While it’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from harm, being overprotective can actually make anxiety worse. Children who are overly sheltered may develop anxiety about the world around them and become overly reliant on their parents for support. This can keep children from experiencing healthy failure, but can also teach the child that their parents don’t believe in their ability to make decisions. It’s important for parents to strike a balance between protecting their children and allowing them to experience the world around them.
A major contributing factor to children developing anxiety is the way they believe their parents perceive them. If a child perceives that their parent believes in their ability to make decisions, process emotions, or cope, the child feels safe to go through normal changes. If a child feels it is unsafe to be their authentic self around their parents, it leads the child to believe they must walk on eggshells to be acceptable to their parents. This only increases feelings of anxiety. Parents should encourage their children to be open about their feelings and be willing to provide a safe space for the child to process and figure things out. This can be accomplished through listening without judgment and validating the child’s emotions around personal distress. Children who are able to express their emotions in a healthy way are less likely to develop anxiety.
Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that can cause significant psychological and emotional harm. Children who have experienced trauma may develop anxiety as a result of the experience. Trauma can have a lasting impact on a child’s emotional well-being, affecting their sense of safety, trust, and ability to regulate emotions.
Children who experience trauma may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that can cause a range of symptoms, including anxiety. Children with PTSD may experience intense fear, helplessness, or horror related to the traumatic event. They may also experience intrusive thoughts or memories, nightmares, and intense physical and emotional reactions to reminders of the event.
Children may also experience Complex PTSD (C-PTSD), a type of trauma that often develops in childhood. C-PTSD is a chronic, multi-faceted, deeply interpersonal type of PTSD. Children may not realize they have experienced this type of PTSD until they have left the circumstances or people that created it. Parents or caregivers are often closely related to the effects or onset of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in children’s lives.
Trauma can also lead to Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a condition characterized by excessive and persistent worry about a variety of everyday situations or events. Children who have experienced trauma may feel a sense of constant danger or threat, leading to persistent anxiety about the future. They may also struggle with trust and intimacy, leading to difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.
Anxiety can also develop as a coping mechanism. Children may develop avoidance behaviors, such as avoiding people, places, or situations that remind them of the traumatic event. This avoidance can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety over time, leading to social isolation, academic difficulties, and impaired functioning.
The impact of trauma on a child’s developing brain is another factor that can contribute to the development of anxiety. Trauma can disrupt the normal development of brain structures and pathways, affecting the child’s ability to regulate emotions, manage stress, and respond appropriately to perceived threats. This can lead to a heightened state of arousal, making the child more susceptible to anxiety and other mental health conditions.
Treatment for anxiety in children who have experienced trauma typically involves therapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be particularly effective for children with PTSD or GAD, helping them identify and challenge negative thoughts and develop coping strategies. Medication can also be used to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and other mental health conditions.
It is important for parents and caregivers to seek professional help if they suspect their child may be struggling with anxiety related to trauma. Early intervention can improve outcomes and prevent long-term difficulties.
Family therapy is a type of therapy that involves working with the entire family unit to address issues and improve relationships. Family therapy can be a powerful tool for children and parents who are dealing with anxiety.
One way that family therapy can help is by providing a safe and supportive space for family members to communicate openly and honestly about their anxiety. In family therapy sessions, family members can learn to express their emotions in a healthy way and work through conflicts that may be contributing to their anxiety. The therapist can facilitate the conversations around stressors, uncomfortable emotions, and disconnects between family members. This can help reduce stress and improve communication within the family.
Family therapy can also help children and parents develop coping mechanisms for dealing with anxiety. Therapists may teach or coach through relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or visualization, that can be used at home to manage anxiety symptoms. They may also work with families to identify triggers for anxiety and develop strategies for avoiding or managing those triggers.
Family therapy can also help to improve family relationships, which can be particularly beneficial for children who are struggling with anxiety. When family relationships are strained, children may feel unsupported, misunderstood, or unsafe which can increase anxious feelings. By working together in therapy, family members can learn to communicate more effectively, improve their relationships, and build a stronger support system for the child with anxiety.
A major way that family therapy can help is by addressing any underlying issues that may be contributing to anxiety that exist beyond the family’s scope of knowledge. For example, a child with anxiety may be struggling with a learning disability or ADHD, and addressing those issues can help to reduce anxiety symptoms. Similarly, parents who are struggling with relationship problems or mental health issues may benefit from individual therapy, which can improve their ability to support their child with anxiety.
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