Anyone who has suffered from anxiety knows it can be debilitating. Fears and worry loom over every decision and these feelings are only compounded when an anxious person becomes a parent. As if the job of raising a child weren’t hard enough, anxiety can cause a parent to make all kinds of parenting mistakes. But some psychologists say it can also be an incredible opportunity to model coping to your kids.
“For parents who have anxiety, you can show your own coping methods to your child,” says Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, an author, speaker, and psychologist in private practice in Princeton, New Jersey. Dr. Kennedy-Moore, who’s written numerous books on child psychology including Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide To Making and Keeping Friends, says she’s seen patients give their children incredible gifts by showcasing how they manage their own apprehensions and urges parents to empower themselves to use their anxiety as a teachable tool to build resilience in their children.
But that’s not the only way they can channel their anxiety into positive parenting tactics. By shifting their anxious behaviors from mistakes to management techniques, parents can help their children become more confident, resilient, and empathetic people.
Excessively protecting a child
“Parents that are anxious can be overprotective, model anxious coping styles, and engage in constant worrying that can prevent the child from developing a balanced healthy outlook about life,” says Dr. Erlanger Turner, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University. “For example, if a parent doesn’t allow the child an opportunity to make a mistake or experience a fear it can potentially lead to unhealthy perfectionism in the child.”
It’s natural to want to protect children, but Dr. Kennedy-Moore says parents have to remember that “anxiety is not a stop signal. It’s a sign that we’re doing something new or challenging.”
“What we know from research is moderate levels of anxiety help performance,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. So parents need to let go of their own concerns and realize that their fear of their child feeling a similar thing is actually a natural response.
Dismissing a child’s fears because they’re different than your fears
It might sound counterintuitive, but another parenting mistake an anxious parent can make is overlooking or dismissing their child’s fears because they’re too consumed by their own worries. “We need to acknowledge and normalize anxiety kids might be feeling,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore tells Romper. “We want to remember that anxiety is a sign that we’re doing something new or challenging.”
Assuming that because you’re scared your child is scared
“There’s a concept in psychology called social referencing,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “Kids look to adults to see how I should feel here.” For example, she says a child will look at a dog, then look at an adult to see how they should react to the dog. “If a grownup is relaxed, it’s easier for child to approach the dog.” But if you’re modeling fear, your child might assume they should be scared too.
“it can be really helpful for anxious parents to sit with their own emotions and allow children to experience the world through their own eyes,” says Dr. Turner. “Don’t allow your worries to prevent your child from engaging in play with their peers or experiencing uncertainty about situations. These experiences are a necessary part of child development.”
Failure to model bravery
“Bravery is not not being scared. Bravery is doing something in spite of being scared,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. And this is where she says anxious parents have a real opportunity to turn their fears and worries into a teachable moment. By demonstrating to their children how they overcome their fears, they can help their own child model resilience.
Children need to feel assured and comforted, but Dr. Kennedy-Moore says anxious parents also need to know when to stop reassuring. “You cannot reassure away anxiety and it actually contributes to it,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “Give information, but then stop.” This can be tough for any parent trying to soothe a child, but by continuing to reassure over and over you’re only giving a child two seconds of relief and then they’re worried again.” Instead, she says, “Tell them, I’ve already answered that question and I’m not going to answer it again.” And move on.
Failure to be a child’s bias biographer
“What we do is we tell stories of struggle followed by triumphs of their struggle,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. This means, you help your child overcome their worries by reminding them of all the times they’ve overcome challenges in the past. For instance, she says, “Remember when you were first learning to ride your bike and you fell and you fell and you fell. And now look at spinning around the neighborhood.”
Contributing to avoidance
When a kid is really freaking out about not wanting to do something, it can be all too easy to let them off the hook, but Dr. Kennedy-Moore says this is contributing to avoidance and not allowing them to develop skills to overcome challenges.
“When we do that, we make them more anxious because we're saying to them, for example, you're right, darling, it really is dangerous for you to sleep in your lovely bedroom down the hall from your adoring parents, in your safe neighborhood.”
Not making the effort to help them socialize due to a parent’s own social anxiety
A parent who allows their own social anxiety to inhibit their child’s opportunities to socialize may isn’t going to help them grow and develop interpersonal relationships.
“On the other hand, I have some clients who do help their kids socialize even though they're anxious. And, you know, it's a brave and beautiful thing to see,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “I tell the parents that this is an incredibly loving thing that you're doing for your kids.”
And ultimately that’s what she wants anxious parents to recognize. Rather than let their fears make parenting harder, they can actually channel some of their coping mechanisms into ways to help their children learn to face and overcome their own fears. But parents don’t have to do it alone. As Dr. Turner says, “For parents that struggle with their own anxiety, it is helpful to find a therapist to work on strategies for coping.” If you need help, ask.
Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD., Author, Speaker, Psychologist in private practice
Dr. Erlanger Turner, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University and Graduate School of Education and Psychology, drerlangerturner.com