Anxiety is sneaky — so sneaky that we often don’t realize we have it until it’s a part of our daily lives. I didn’t recognize that I was experiencing anxiety until I was over 40 years old. I just thought I was irritable, stressed, introverted. When I began to recognize that my anxiety caused these things, I took a look back at my life and began to understand how often it showed up. After I saw the impact anxiety had on me, I worried about how much my anxiety had affected my kids.
The thing about anxiety is that you can pass it down to your kids without even trying or knowing that it’s happening.
Anxious Parents = Anxious Kids
Studies have shown that anxious parents can lead to anxious children. And it’s not genetics; the kids aren’t born that way. One of the ways children learn is by modeling the behaviors of others, then imitating them and internalizing them. Anxiety is one of those behaviors. If your child sees you getting stressed out or irritated before taking them to school, he picks up on your anxious feelings about going to school. If this occurs regularly, , your child might then develop her own anxieties about going to school. Your children can pick up on your anxieties in other areas, too, like social situations, making phone calls, phobias, when things are out of your control — you get it.
My children have manifested anxiety in their own ways: a fear of bugs (me too), anxiety attacks (I’ve had them) and social anxiety (I get it). This is not the legacy I wanted to pass down to my kids.
Learning To Manage Anxiety
The good news is that other studies have shown that parents who learn to model healthy ways of managing their anxiety have children who are less likely to develop anxiety themselves. When kids see their parents managing their anxiety in healthy ways, they learn how to manage their own anxious feelings. When I realized that I’d been anxious a long time, I discussed it with my kids and shared the ways I was learning to manage it.
My previous post gives some awesome tips from a colleague on how to help you manage your children’s anxiety. Below are a few suggestions for healthy ways to manage anxiety that you can model for your children:
• Practice calming techniques together when you’re not stressed out. Creating space to calm yourself when you’re feeling at peace helps you access that calm place when you’re stressed. Involving your children will help them access it too. Meditation, breath awareness, yoga, mindful drawing and sitting quietly are all good ways to practice.
• Pause before reacting. Anxiety can make you very irritable and short-tempered. If you’re stressed or feeling uncomfortable, you might lash out at those you care about in ways you’ll regret later. Take the time to pause and take a deep cleansing breath, acknowledge your anxious feelings, think about what you want to say and how you want to say it. For example, maybe you’re driving in heavy traffic and your kids are singing or talking loudly in the car. Because you’re anxious about the traffic, you might find yourself yelling at the kids to be quiet. Instead, take a deep breath, recognize that you’re anxious and think about what you need from your kids to help ease your anxiety. You might then be able to say something like, “It’s super busy on the roads right now and it’s stressing me out. It would really help me if you guys can keep it down so I can pay attention to all the cars on the road.”
• Be kind to yourself. Anxiety often gets activated when we make mistakes or forget things. Beating yourself up only increases your stress. Try offering yourself words of comfort and support: “Oh no! I dropped the eggs! But that’s OK, everyone makes mistakes,” or “I missed my dentist appointment! That happened because I have a lot on my mind. But it’s OK because I’m human and sometimes I forget things.” Saying these phrases aloud shows your children that no one is perfect, and being imperfect is a part of life.
Therapy Can Help You Manage Anxiety
If you’re having trouble managing your anxiety and stress, counseling can help. It helps you understand what your triggers are and how they developed. Therapy provides support and a safe place to share your thoughts and feelings. A therapist can also help you figure out what strategies work best for you to help you manage more effectively. If you’d like to find out if therapy might help you, please call or email me.
Elizabeth Cush, MA, LGPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose.