There's no denying that I inherited a number of traits from my mother: My fair skin. My unwavering conviction that the frosting is the most important part of the cake. And, alas, my anxiety. My mom didn't intentionally gift me with her propensity for worry, but she might have taught me unwittingly nonetheless (just like I might be teaching my kids). And it turns out that if your mom said certain things to you when you were young, you can probably trace your anxiety back to her, too.
Now, it's worth noting that probably every mom has said at least a few of the offending phrases on this list to their child or children at least a few times, if not more. Because moms are human beings who don't always have the presence of mind to consider the psychological implications of every word that comes out of their mouths. But that doesn't mean your child is doomed to a life of nail-biting and antacids, particularly if you're an otherwise reliable parent.
"Actions speak louder than words," Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch tells Romper.
"While words can be powerful and can engender intense feelings like anxiety in children, [a parent's] behavior can be even more impactful," she says. "A parent's role is to provide a predictable, stable and reliable environment. When mothers' behaviors are erratic and unpredictable, children become anxious, an emotional template which may expand in adulthood."
A parent's words can become problematic when they invalidate what a child is feeling, Dr. Dorfman continues. "Children rely on parents to help translate their confusing and overwhelming internal emotional experiences. When parents deny, ignore or minimize a child's feelings, the child will become anxious when they re-experience these feelings."
Another way your words can act as anxiety transmitters is when you talk about your own stress in a non-constructive way.
"Many children are sensitive to tension and anxiety in the home," says Dr. Dorfman. When a mother can't manage her own worries, she is "likely to model and engender similar feelings in her child," putting them on track for an anxious adulthood.
Is all of this info making you even more anxious than you already were about anxiety? It might help you to know that while yes, kids of anxious parents are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder, that "trajectory toward anxiety isn't set in stone."
"Therapy and a change in parenting styles might be able to prevent kids from developing anxiety disorders," according to research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, as reported by NPR.
So with that part about changing parenting styles in mind, here are the phrases you could try avoiding from now on. It might be too late for your mom, but at least the cycle can break with you.
1. "Stop crying."
I truly never thought I would say this to my children... before I knew what 45-minute-long tantrums were like. Still, it's not the right thing to say. "Statements like 'stop crying' convey to a child that sad feelings are unacceptable," says Dr. Dorfman. "As a result, when these feelings invariably resurface, the child may become an anxious adult."
2. "Calm down."
Yikes, I'm definitely guilty of this one. Indeed, Scott Bea, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, told The Huffington Post that it usually comes from a heartfelt place when parents say this, but that doesn't mean it won't kick your kid's anxiety into high gear. “So many of the things you might say end up having a paradoxical effect and make the anxiety worse,” he said. “Anxiety can be like quicksand: the more you do to try to defuse the situation immediately, the deeper you sink. By telling people things like ‘stay calm,’ they can actually increase their sense of panic.”
3. "Hurry up!"
Okay, literally every parent ever has told their kids to hurry up... but has it ever worked? Freaking out at your kid when they're taking forever to get out the door because you'res stressed about just makes them shouldn't avoid talking about anxiety altogether, explains Dr. Laura Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist, explained in an article for the Child Mind Institute. Later, when things are calm, say to her: “Do you remember when I got really frustrated in the morning? I was feeling anxious because you were late for school, and the way I managed my anxiety was by yelling. But there are other ways you can manage it too. Maybe we can come up with a better way of leaving the house each morning.”
Talking about anxiety in this way gives children permission to feel stress, explains Dr. Kirmayer, and sends the message that stress is manageable. “If we feel like we have to constantly protect our children from seeing us sad, or angry, or anxious, we’re subtly giving our children the message that they don’t have permission to feel those feelings, or express them, or manage them,” she add
4. "Don't worry."
Just like telling a kid to "calm down can backfire," this "can engender the paradoxical response, escalating worry and intensity," according to Dr. Dorfman.
5. "It's no big deal."
Talk about invalidating! It goes without saying that if your child is upset about something, it's a big deal to them. Is a broken Popsicle an actually "big deal" in life? No, but your kid doesn't know that yet... all they know is that you don't understand the way they feel.
6. "You're okay."
Once again, it's understandable that you'd try to reassure your kid by telling them they're "okay" after a tumble off the slide; after all, they're technically "okay." Except, they certainly don't feel okay... so you're back to invalidating those very, very real emotions.
7. "You're going to fall and break your neck."
You'll say just about anything to get your kid to stop doing something dangerous, but going overboard will teach them to do the same. It's better to use smaller and more realistic terms to warn your kids, according to Parents: "Imagining the best outcome rather than the worst one is one way to manage negative anticipations and control tendencies to catastrophize."
8. "Pull yourself together."
It sure can be tempting to use this one when your kid is doing the kicking-and-screaming-on-the-floor thing, but the truth is while tough love won't work, empathy will. As Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, told the Huffington Post, "swapping pep-talk language for phrases like 'that’s a terrible way to feel' or 'I’m sorry you feel that way.'"
“The paradox is, [an empathetic phrase] helps them calm down because they don’t feel like they have to fight for their anxiety,” Humphreys said. “It shows some understanding.”
9. "Let me do that for you."
When you're an anxious person, watching your kid struggle to tie his shoes or pour a glass of milk can make you feel so on edge that you'd rather just jump in and take over... but don't. "One way in which anxious mothers will convey their anxiety to a child is by being over-involved in what their child is doing," Graham C.L. Davey Ph.D. wrote for Psychology Today.
"Such over-involvement is likely to increase the child’s perception of threat, reduce the child’s perceived control over threat, increase avoidance of threat, and lead to worrying about potential threats," Davey added.
Realistically speaking, it's unlikely that you'll never ever say any of these things again. But being more mindful of your words will make a difference!