Let's dive into a topic that I encounter a lot when working with kids struggling with anxiety - Anxiety Transmission. Anxiety has a particular way of sneaking into our own thoughts and, like a mischievous projector, projecting them onto unsuspecting people around us.
Picture this: you, as a parent, sibling, or partner, unintentionally passing on your own fears and anxieties to your loved ones, especially those spongy little hearts known as children. It happens more often than we realize. The way children observe us, their trusted caregivers, navigating uncertain situations with our own anxieties can significantly shape their own perception of the world and influence how they deal with their worries and fears throughout their lives.
Children are masters of observation. They pick up on our facial expressions, our body language, and the energy we radiate. They absorb it all like sponges, internalizing our anxieties and fears as their own. So, if we're consistently anxious or fearful, they, too, begin to see those scenarios as dangerous and unsafe. To give you a simple example – think of a mom who is afraid of dogs due to a traumatic childhood experience with dogs. When she is walking to the park with her toddler and there is a person walking their dog on the same path she may flinch when she notices the dog coming their way, she may squeeze her child’s hand a little tighter, she may cross the street to avoid walking too close to the dog. When the toddler excitedly says “dog!” she might dismiss the comment or she may say something like “yes a dog” in an uncertain/nervous tone. If the toddler asks to pet the dog, she’ll quickly say no. Soon the toddler learns (through observation of mom’s reactions) that dogs are scary and he too will start to fear dogs even though he never had a traumatic experience with a dog. Talk about a powerful ripple effect!
Here’s a quick fact - anxiety is the most common mental health issue worldwide. As parents, we face numerous stressors and unique challenges, but for those of us living with anxiety, there's an added layer of complexity. We must navigate the maze of parenthood while simultaneously managing our own anxiety and being mindful not to transfer it onto our children. If you find yourself noticing that your child is starting to exhibit some of those same anxious behaviors you struggle with, take a deep breath and remember this: it's not about blame; it's about understanding and healing. By managing our own stress effectively, we can help our children learn to manage theirs too. It's a beautiful dance of resilience we can practice with our children.
Now, let's talk about avoidance. We all want to protect our children from bad feelings, right? It's a natural part of being a parent. However, when we allow them ourselves or our children to avoid unfamiliar or difficult situations, we inadvertently reinforce the belief that avoidance is the best way to deal with fear. But here's the thing: when we face our fears head-on, we build resilience from learning that we can actually handle them. We learn that fear can be a false alarm, not a prediction. Avoidance is a vicious cycle that makes our children perceive the world as a dangerous place and stay stuck on high alert.
So, how do we break free from this cycle of anxiety transmission? Let me share a few helpful tips:
Embrace the power of conversation: Talk to your child openly and honestly. Let them know that it's okay to feel worried or scared. Create a safe space for them to share their fears.
Identify the anxious triggers: Work together to pinpoint the situations or thoughts that trigger anxiety. By understanding the root causes, you both can develop strategies to face them head-on.
Start small, but start: Confront anxious situations step by step, starting with manageable challenges. Gradual exposure builds confidence and resilience.
Be the brave model: Show your child how to be courageous. Lead by example, using positive language and demonstrating healthy coping mechanisms. Remember, monkey see, monkey do!
But what about us, the anxious parents trying to navigate this scary journey? Well, I have a few helpful tips for us too:
Mind your reactions: Instead of succumbing to panic, practice the art of staying calm. Take deep breaths, embrace mindfulness, and find comfort in the present moment.
Seek professional guidance: There's no shame in asking for help. Reach out to professionals who can equip you with healthy coping skills to manage your own anxiety effectively.
Reimagine worry: Learn to differentiate between healthy worries and unhealthy anxiety. Some level of worry is normal and can even be helpful. Embrace problem-solving and reframing as powerful allies on your journey.
Stop catastrophizing: Resist the temptation to automatically jump to worst-case scenarios. Instead, focus on collaborative problem-solving and developing a resilient mindset.
Always remember that this journey of navigating anxiety transmission is one of constant self-discovery and growth. By taking care of our own well-being and partnering up with our children to help them take care of theirs, we can break the cycle of anxiety and create a legacy of resilience for our children.
Barbara Johns, LPC-Associate
I believe that in order to heal, people need to have a safe space where they can explore what is contributing to their problems and how they can use their difficulties as fuel for personal growth in order to turn things around and live life the way they really want to. My goal is to provide you with that safe and supportive environment as well as with new tools and skills that you can take with you on your journey toward healing and growth.