by Nishoni Harvey
Laughter is often contagious. Big, genuine smiles are contagious. Crying can be contagious. Short-term fear, or anxiety, is contagious.
If there’s a thunderstorm, and you’re a nervous wreck, guess what your young children will be? A nervous wreck! And probably worse off than you. If you remain calm and reassuring, your children will be calmer and, most likely, have a much lesser likelihood of panic. This is the here and now effect of your anxiety on your children.
But what about the long-term effects? Will my panic disorder cause my child to have anxiety too?
Anxiety disorders run rampant in America. They’ve taken over the lives of over 40 million adults. It’s not surprising, then, that there are many children raised in homes where one or both parents have some form of anxiety disorder.
Some children grow up with a parent like me (I have four of the five major anxiety disorders) and then never have one iota of a problem with anxiety as an adult. But there are also children that swing the other way, being even more anxious than their parent ever was. It’s hard to tell, though, which are cases of an anxiety disorder being inherited, which children have merely “learned” the behavior, and which suffer from both situations.
What does it mean that an anxiety disorder can be learned?
Let me tell you, first, what I do NOT mean. I do not mean that your son or daughter is faking their anxiety. Learned anxiety is just as real and just as problematic as a psychological anxiety disorder.
The five major types of psychological disorders that fall in the realm of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
The symptoms of most of these can be “passed down” from parent to child.
If a parent loves to paint and shares that passion with her children, they might learn to love and appreciate art. If a father loves to read and the family reads together, his child will most likely learn to love books. If your family raises German Shepherds, and your daughter has good experiences during those years, odds are, she’ll grow up loving German Shepherds and end up owning one of her own. Similarly, if one or both parents have uncontrolled symptoms of, say, OCD, their child may grow up obsessing over what evil could befall their loved ones in the future or compulsively fixing the world too. Monkey see-monkey do.
Further yet, a child, and even a teen, grows up uncertain of “who” they are. They are on a constant search for their identity. They’re being shaped as they grow. How do they learn their behaviors? From you. Can anxiety be learned? Absolutely. Will it be? Maybe not. Maybe so. That’s going to depend on your child.
How do I keep my child from “learning” this?
None of us want our children to have to live with anxiety. There are children who have real anxiety disorders. Do not discount that. But, if they don’t have an anxiety disorder, there are steps we can take to help them grow up in an ever-changing world without learning to fear it. It’s much easier never to learn anxiety than it is to learn to cope with it in the future.
- Let your child experience life. Confession time. I have a problem. I fear to let my children out of my sight. I’m always afraid something will happen to them. I feel like if I’m there, I can keep them safer than anyone else can. I feel like if they’re home with me, they’re invincible. Super Mom, right? Wrong.
The truth is that they’re just as safe with their daddy. Regardless of how many panic attacks I have just thinking about being separated from them. The truth is that anything can happen at any time—whether I’m there or not. The truth is it probably won’t.
I have a problem letting them go out with friends. They’re not with me. I have a problem leaving them with a sitter. I have a problem letting them play games where they might get hurt. I have a problem letting them climb trees. The sad truth is, I have a problem allowing them to be kids.
I have to get over that. You have to get over that. You have to let them experience life. Don’t teach them to hide from the world around them because of the fear that you hold in your heart.
- Don’t blow everything out of proportion. When something does happen, don’t overreact. Take care of the matter at hand and move on. If the situation calls for giving them love and kissing the owie, don’t ready the world to drive them to the emergency room.
Their reaction to the situation is going to be directly proportionate to yours. If you freak out over a small cut, they will too. If you comfort your children and just take care of it, they won’t be as scared of the situation. You’ll have an easier “go” of cleaning their cut, you’ll have taken a leap forward in your life, and they’ll have learned something very important about you. You offer peace amid the storm.
Let them handle their own problems. Many parents think, “I’m good at this ‘protecting my kids thing.’ I keep them happy and out of trouble by stemming the tide before it starts.” Stepping in and resolving all your child’s conflicts for him is not good parenting. It’s raising a child that doesn’t know how to problem-solve, cope, and deal with people on their own. If you’re always stepping in and stopping the one-on-one debates between your child and his friends over whose penny they found on the floor, who left the hose running, or what they should have for snack-time, how will he ever learn to communicate their feelings to others properly? I’m NOT saying that you shouldn’t referee. Refereeing may be necessary at times, but don’t just take over the squabble and shut down the conversation every single time.
Let you five-year-old sit there and cry over not being able to figure out how to climb the flower in Super Mario Galaxy. If you’ve shown her once or twice already, let her develop her problem-solving skills by giving her the chance to figure it out on her own.
If your three-year-old is crying because “little Tommy” took his toy again, don’t go take the toy from “little Tommy” and give it back to your son. Use the time to teach him some coping skills. Instead, prompt him to get another toy or find something else to do.
Another good idea is to direct your son’s thinking into the way of sympathy. “Maybe Tommy needs some friends. Maybe he doesn’t have anyone to play with. Maybe you could be friends with Tommy.” This will, not only teach him coping skills and people skills, but it will also teach him how to love those who do wrong things to him.
- Lastly, don’t let your children face it on their own. Discuss anxiety with them, just like you talk about any other kind of behavior that should be discouraged.
You might be thinking, “My child doesn’t have anxiety. Why should I talk to her about it right now?”
It’s the most common mental health problem in America, yet people don’t talk about it. There are adults that believe all anxiety stems from a lack of faith in God. Granted, we do tend to worry more than we should, but there’s a difference between worry and an anxiety disorder. People need to be educated.
It’s not surprising, then, that some of our children would be oblivious too. What I do find surprising is that, with the nearly 6-million children here in America who suffer with it, we don’t have some sort of program teaching parents how to identify anxiety in their children and how to train them how to cope with it.
Say! That would make a good post for this blog! Maybe I’ll do that next time. 😊
What if I’m too late?
If you’ve been doing it wrong, it’s never too late to start doing it right. If your child has already started exhibiting some symptoms of an anxiety disorder, take him into the pediatrician to be seen. They can get you a referral to a therapist at the very least. It may be difficult, but anything that can be learned can be unlearned.
Help your child face her fears. If she has a fear of going outside, walk with her to the mailbox every day. Gradually break off until she’s going out on her own. If she’s OCD about handwashing, challenge her to sit on the couch and read a book for 30-minutes without washing her hands. If she has social anxiety, try taking a day at a small park where she can practice making friends without the crowd.
Reward small victories. Maybe let her play on your phone for ten minutes. Perhaps you and she can have a picnic in the backyard. On rare occasion, you might take her for ice cream or buy her a candy bar.
Finally, be patient. Be patient with your child. He’s doing the best he can do. Don’t forget how you are or how you were before medication!
Be patient for him. Healing takes time. Don’t expect an overnight transformation. He didn’t learn this behavior overnight. It won’t be unlearned overnight either.
Regardless of whether your child is developing symptoms or not, it’s never too early nor too late to start teaching your children coping skills. This life is full of anxiety-riddled situations. It’s just… well, life. Even if your children never develop or learn an anxiety disorder, coping techniques will help them in life.