You may be wondering if your anxiety and worry is making your kids worried. Perhaps, your spouse has told you that your child is so worked up because you’re so worked up.
You’re making him crazy
Secretly, you might wonder if you are. You might also think that your spouse minimizes the things you worry about… but that is a different post!
Anxiety is contagious
The truth is that children look to us to gauge the emotional temperature of the situation.
Do you remember when your child was 2? They were running and then suddenly they took a major spill. How did you react? Like most parents, you probably had those moments where the fear consumed your face, you gasped and rushed to your child. Seeing the fear in your face, your child burst into tears. After a few spills, you learned the trick. You had a go to reaction for when your kid got hurt. You put on your calm, caring, you’re-ok face as you quickly assessed the situation. Your child saw your calm face and decided I’m fine, gotta go play and ran off. Then you exhaled all of that tension and worry.
Children read our reactions to situations. They scan for facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, body movements, and words. They are attuned to us and intuitively assess how we perceive a situation. This is what makes anxiety so contagious.
Parent anxiety and mirror neurons
The brain is equipped with “mirror neurons.” These are special cells in the brain that activate when we perform an action or observe an action being performed. These amazing neurons help us to understand other people’s experiences and to learn through watching another’s action. By the 20th time you’ve watched your mother make chicken soup, it may feel second nature to you. Similarly, when your child sees you pacing back and forth, fretting about if they will be ok separating from you at school, your child’s mirror neurons are firing as if they were performing that action and feeling that stress.
Parent worry and child anxiety
Your overflowing worry could have a number of impacts on your child:
Worry suggests that there is a problem. In fact, the purpose of worry is to alert us to the problem and attempt to solve it. When children see you worry it suggests that there is something to be worried about, and therefore they worry. They try to understand the problem and come up with their own solutions. Because they care, they may not tell you that they are worried or struggling with the problem. Furthermore, they don’t want to worry you more. As we know, sometimes the solutions they come up with aren’t the best. You’re worried about my food allergies, here’s a great solution: I just won’t eat.
When we worry too much and too openly about our kids it undermines their confidence in themselves. For example, you’re worried because your son is struggling in history. You start talking to him about it regularly. You are checking in on when he is doing his homework and how much time he is studying. There is a tutor you think he should consider. You question his social activities. You wonder if he understands that this will impact colleges. He overhears you telling your friend that he bombed another test and you’re not sure that he knows what he is doing. You question if this is just too much for him. He sees and hears you worrying a lot. He also begins to question if he can do this. Now you have a bigger problem on your hands. Excessive worry communicates that we don’t think they can handle the situation and this undermines their ability to handle the situation.
Diminished confidence in you as a parent
Observing you manage your anxiety and worry can provide children with the skills and stamina to tackle their own anxiety. However, watching your worry spiral and consume you, suggests that the anxiety is stronger than you, the parent. This situation is scary for children (and teens) because you’re the one who is supposed to be able to handle everything. You’re the one they rely on to solve problems and keep them safe. If you can’t handle what’s happening, this leaves your child feeling vulnerable.
Reduced sense of safety
Anxiety and worry typically hang out with fear. When children are experiencing your anxiety, they feel nervous, they actively worry, and their body experiences the sensations of fear. These sensations can include increased heart rate, physical pains, restlessness, and an upset stomach. Children often don’t know where to attribute those sensations. They start to feel unsafe and associate those feelings with any related situation. They can become fearful of bedtime, or going to school, or playdates, or visiting relatives, or eating or any number of other situations.
Our children look to us to gauge the severity of different situations through our reactions to those situations. Understanding what we do when we’re anxious is key to preventing our kids from picking up on that anxiety. Stay tuned for Part 2: Ways to manage your anxiety so your child doesn’t catch it.
Struggling with anxiety? Let us help.
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Brave Minds Psychological Services helps children, teens and families overcome severe anxiety, stress, and painful experiences. We specialize in developing brave minded youth that can move forward despite fears and significant challenges.