A parental anxiety disorder can create a parent-child anxiety cycle which is best broken with family intervention, a new study reports. An anxiety disorder can be caused by a variety of factors, including environmental, psychological and biological (to name a few). Situations we are presented with can cause feelings of anxiety, which can inhibit our willingness to perform certain tasks. For example, a person may not use an elevator due to anxiety stemming from a fear that the cables will snap or they will get trapped inside.
An anxiety disorder can greatly impact a family, and the family may be unable to attend certain functions or activities due to another member having anxiety surrounding it. Due to its limiting nature, an anxiety disorder can greatly affect a person’s life – along with their family.
Breaking the anxiety cycle using family intervention therapy
New findings suggest that anxious parents can ‘pass on’ anxiety disorders to their children, thus creating a parent-child anxiety cycle. Researchers at the University of Connecticut have found family intervention therapy to be useful when it comes to breaking the anxiety cycle.
The family intervention therapy was tested over the course of one year and involved 136 families, each with at least one parent with an anxiety disorder. The findings revealed that family intervention therapy was successful in breaking the anxiety cycle as only nine percent of children went on to develop an anxiety disorder.
Golda Ginsburg, Ph.D., psychiatrist from the university, said, “The finding underscores the vulnerability of offspring of anxious parents. If we can identify kids at risk, let’s try and prevent this.”
Anxiety disorders have been seen to run in families and although prevention methods have been conducted in schools, they have minimal success.
Children with anxiety can experience many problems in their lives. They may choose to never sleep in the dark due to fear, or they may not want to even attend school because they will have to meet and talk to new people. Ginsburg added, “Anxiety and fear are protective and adaptive. But in anxious kids they may not be, because these children have thoughts about danger and threat when there really isn’t one.”
For the study some families sat through therapy sessions while others were given pamphlets or didn’t receive anything. In therapy, the families practiced problem-solving techniques and were safely exposed to what made them anxious.
The children portion of the therapy had the lowest rates of developing anxiety. Additional funding has now be given to determine if the benefits are long-lasting, even after the therapy is complete.
Parental anxiety makes children anxious
A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry examined 900 families with adult twins who had children. The researchers wanted to show if anxiety was genetically passed or had more to do with the upbringing of the child. Because the majority of genetics are the same in twins they are a good baseline to test this theory.
Researchers found that the children of twin parents with anxiety were more like their own parent than their parent’s twin. This shows that how a child is raised has more to do with the development of anxiety than genetics.
The researchers have some theories about how anxiety can be ‘passed’ on, including observation (when the child watches the parent), ‘negative parenting behaviors,’ which involve the parent unnecessarily protecting the child, or by allowing a child’s anxiety and fears to fester by supporting them and helping them avoid their fears.
There is a lot of previous research supporting the notion that anxiety can run in families, and therapy, too, has been shown successful when the parent is involved. Therefore, if a parent wants to curb their child’s anxiety, it works best when the whole family partakes in therapy as a means to break the cycle.
Tips to ease parental anxiety
Parental anxiety can start in childhood and develop into adulthood. If a parent has anxiety, it increases their child’s risk of developing anxiety, which can very well impede on that child’s life. Here are some tips to ease parental anxiety and lessen the likelihood of passing down an anxiety disorder to the next generation.
- Accept that you are fearful and have anxiety.
- Learn the facts in order to combat fear – if you’re fearful that your child will be abducted, understand that only 115 (out of more than 800,000) abducted children were taken by stereotypical kidnapping means; it is probably very unlikely your child will be abducted.
- Teach your child healthy and effective methods to cope with anxiety and use them together to get better.
- Try mindfulness in order to relax and stay calm – this can be practiced with your child as well.
- Practice slow breathing – show your child this technique also.
- Eliminate catastrophic or likely risks to your child in order to ease your anxiety – if you have a pool, considering putting a locked gate around it or remove it altogether.
- Make a list of pros and cons of overprotecting your child.
- Confront fears with reasonable action.
Parental do’s and don’ts with anxious children
If you have a child with anxiety, it may seem difficult to help them – especially if you have anxiety yourself. There are effective ways to help your anxious child, but there are also ways which can make the anxiety worse. Here are some do’s and don’ts of parenting an anxious child.
Do: Help your child manage anxiety.
Don’t: Try to eliminate it.
Unfortunately, you can’t just place your child in a bubble where they are safe, and you can’t simply remove your child’s stressors. Instead try to help them better manage and better handle their stressors.
Don’t: Avoid things to make your child happy.
If your child doesn’t like to go to school, don’t just pull them out and start home-schooling. This may temporarily help your child, but in the long run they will never learn to be less fearful of whatever is causing them stress.
Do: Be positive and realistic.
Some of your child’s fears are natural processes of life – they will probably fail a test or get laughed at. Instead of dismissing these you need to be realistic. Help them (and yourself) accept that they will fail sometimes, but make sure they understand that they still need to try and that it’s not the end of the world when these things happen.
Do: Respect your child’s feelings.
Don’t: Empower them.
Hear your child out and try to empathize with them, but don’t empower these feelings – especially if it prevents them from doing necessary things. Be supportive to get them through it, and don’t just act like their emotions are not real or justified.
Don’t: Ask leading questions.
Open ended questions – a question that doesn’t result in a yes or no reply – are better than close-ended questions. Open ended questions also allow you to get a better understanding of what your child is feeling.
Don’t: Reinforce your child’s fears.
Reinforcing your child’s fear can only make things worse. Once again, this goes back to creating management and coping skills.
Do: Encourage the child to tolerate their anxiety.
Positive reinforcement when your child tolerates their anxiety can better help them accept and move past their fear.
Do: Minimize the anticipatory period.
Leading up to a fear can be worse then actually facing it. For example, if your child has an upcoming dentist appointment, moments or even days beforehand they may increase their anxiety. Take the time to go through their anxiety, but keep it short as to not prolong it.
Do: Think things through with the child.
In some cases, discussing the fear with real-life consequences may help the child see that it’s not a big deal after all. For example, if the child is fearful of failing, you can help them see that if they fail a test they simple have to study more the next time, but they can still very well pass the class.
Other therapies for anxiety problems
There are many other styles of therapy which can help with anxiety, the trick is to find the one that will work best for you.
Cognitive behavioral therapy: This is the most common form of therapy to treat anxiety. It involves addressing the patterns and distortions of how we see the world. This therapy works to change our perception towards the situations which cause us anxiety. For example, if you get invited to a party, you may think it will be fun, but if you think you’ll be awkward and not have any fun, that perception needs to change.
Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy exposes the fear to the individual in steps, so they can gradually begin to tolerate it and become less fearful. For example, if a person is anxious about planes, the therapist may show them a picture of a plane, then watch videos, teach them facts and have them build up to the point of getting on a plane.
Complimentary therapies: Complementary therapies may better help you manage symptoms related to stress. These are therapies that work with your main form of treatment not solely on their own. Complementary therapies include exercise, relaxation, biofeedback and hypnosis.
Anxiety can really take a toll on your life, so much so that it can begin to affect your children. Take necessary steps to combat your own anxiety and help your child work through theirs, so neither of you have to live life in fear.
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