Whether you realize it or not, the state of your mental health is an important part of parenting. If you have anxiety, you're already aware of how it affects your own quality of life, and at times, the lives of those around you. Anxiety can manifest in many different ways — avoidance, excessive worrying, fear of typically "normal" scenarios — and it doesn't just disappear once you become a parent. In fact, there are probably parenting things you don't realize you're doing because you have anxiety, that are affecting, or will affect, your children at some point in their lives.
A 2015 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report states that 80 percent of children have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, and over 22 percent of all youth are susceptible to being diagnosed with some form of mental health disorder before they reach 18. Anxiety disorders are the most often diagnosed, and the median age of symptom onset is just 6 years old. Those statistics are staggering considering that, according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in the U.S. alone have some type of anxiety disorder. If you look at the numbers, there's bound to be a link between parenting with anxiety and the passage of anxiety-related symptoms.
Mental Health America states that the likelihood of an anxious parent passing their anxiety onto their child is varied and "unpredictable," as it has more to do with a child's biological and psychological makeup, combined with the risk of exposure and severity of a parent's mental illness. There are genetic links for some — such as Bipolar disorder — but it doesn't necessarily mean your child will have anxiety just because you do. However, being exposed to a parent's continual worry, and the symptoms present as the result of that worry, is bound to leave some sort of impression, and that thought alone, as a parent, is enough to trigger even more anxiety.
I'm, admittedly, guilty. I excessively worry about the way I parent and how my children are affected by my choices, because I'm one of the 40 million adults living with an anxiety disorder. While the anxiety didn't manifest because of having children, it's magnified by it. At times, I can't tell if I'm doing something because it's the right thing for my two children, or because it's what my anxiety has dictated I do. Subsequently, I find myself desperately searching for and seeking advice on how not to mess up, or how to be a better parent. At the end of the day, that's all we all want — to do right by our children. Anxiety gets in the way of that, clouding our judgement and often forcing us to err on the sides of caution, fear, and apprehension when it isn't necessary.
Dr. Laura Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist, tells The Child Mind Institute that parents need to learn "stress tolerance," adding that, "it’s a simultaneous process — it’s both directing the parent’s anxiety, and then how they also support and scaffold the child’s development of stress tolerance." Kirmayer goes on to emphasize the importance of watching what words you choose to say, how you say them, as well as paying attention to your facial expressions. Children are watching everything you say and do, so if you're worrying constantly they pick up on it.
When you suffer from anxiety, your anxiety might drive you to obsess over something, or trick you into ignoring it altogether. For instance, if you hear about something that happened at school to your child, you might think about, dream about, and talk incessantly about how your child can overcome the obstacle, how you can help, or all the ways it's "the worst thing that's ever happened." Or, alternately, the anxiety can shut the rational part of your brain down, leaving you mentally immobile at a time when your kid might need you the most. I've experienced both.
Managing your own anxiety first will prevent you from unintentionally making decisions based on that false perception anxiety creates.
There's a definitive connection between problem-solving skills and those with depression and anxiety disorders. According to Depression.org, issues may seem bigger than they actually are when you're suffering from a mental health disorder. Anxiety compounds your ability to strategically overcome a challenge, particularly in a time of immediacy. Your parenting is affected when a child needs you to make a decision and your brain, along with the anxiety, isn't capable. It's as if the wires and chemicals short-circuit temporarily due to the fear of making the wrong choice. This only reenforces a dangerous lesson to your children: to be afraid of choosing for themselves. Psych Central says to remind yourself that if something doesn't work out, it doesn't mean you did something wrong.
Likewise, Psychology Today suggests practicing something called "thought-stopping" when you're "engaged in anxiety-provoking thinking" — telling yourself to stop obsessing over a particular thought until it becomes regular habit — so that you're not exposing your children to the anxieties.
When you have an anxiety disorder, the possibility of losing control is vexing. So, to compensate, you might hover over your child's every move, even if you don't mean to. That fear of them falling and getting hurt is prevented because you tell them not to climb the monkey bars. Or, they avoid making mistakes of any kind because you've explained the dangers of every possible scenario. These parenting decisions aren't done out of spite, but out of an innate need to protect your children from the world. Anxiety.org suggests extreme forms of helicopter parenting may actually be instill anxiety in your children, though.
A study done via Dr. Aaron Luebbe of Miami University in Ohio found that of the 377 students they recruited, results show "higher overall helicopter parenting scores were associated with poorer academic achievement on the part of students and less adaptive decision making." The study also revealed that "helicopter parenting might actually increase the chances that students experience anxiety or depression."
A motivator of anxiety is fear. And when you're anxious, you instill a sense of fear in your children, too. It might manifest by scaring them into not doing "fun" things because of all the worries you have. Yes, you've lived and have enough life experience to asses what might be deemed a dangerous activity, but it's important to acknowledge when your anxiety is trying to decide for you.
When you have anxiety, sometimes leaving the house is panic-inducing. You might not realize all the invitations you've turned down, all the places you didn't go visit, or all the opportunities you've missed, until your child looks up at you and asks why they can't go to a friend's house or the nearest park. Anxiety is hard to live with, but it's even harder when your children feel the affects of it.
As parents, we all want our children to succeed. Anxiety lies to us though, and tells us that failure isn't a natural part of success. So, naturally, we want to prevent our kids from experiencing any form of crushing defeat. But the truth is, and you know this, the biggest lessons are learned from failure, not achievement. It might seem terrifying to let your child lose or get a bad grade or feel that heartbreak, but you can't let your anxiety dictate their exposure or reaction to those natural parts of life.
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