How Parents Can Avoid Passing On Their Fears & Worries to their kids
As parents, there are many fears and anxieties we hold that we may pass on to our children. Sometimes, these may be situations where you are clinically diagnosed with an anxiety or mood disorder. But other times, it can simply be the worries of adulthood: Bills and mortgages and job stress and worries about the future.
While it’s natural to worry, feel anxious or have fears, it’s important that parents not pass these on to our children. After all, kids have enough to worry about on their own, without picking up our own anxious traits and our own tendencies towards fear and worry.
The good news? It’s possible to break the cycle and keep your own worries from being passed down to your children. In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, (1) researchers followed 136 families where each family had at least one parent with anxiety and at least one child who hadn't been diagnosed with anxiety.
Half of the families received regular family therapy and the other half didn’t. After a year, the families where parents didn’t try to work on their own anxiety saw an increase of 31 percent of their children being diagnosed with anxiety. But for parents who received therapy to handle their anxiety in healthy ways, only 5 percent of their children ended up being diagnosed with anxiety.
“The message from the study's findings so far, [lead researcher Golda] Ginsburg says, is that the focus needs to shift from reaction to prevention,” reports NPR. Here are some ways to take a proactive, preventative approach so your kids grow up healthy and emotionally balanced, with a lower risk of picking up on your own stress and worries.
1. Use Teamwork
You don’t have to be supermom or super dad. It’s perfectly natural if you have a big fear or worry and sometimes it’s simply not possible for you to “let it go.” That’s where it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Even if you’re the sole caregiver of your child, your child has other adults in his or her life who can act as role models. By not having to shoulder the burden all on your own, that alone can help reduce some of your worries.
“If you have a persistent fear, allow other adults in your child’s life to model a lack of fear,” says psychologist Susan Newman in a column for Psychology Today magazine. (2) “For example, a source of anxiety for [a mom named Alice] is dogs and animals generally—partly in terms of being bitten, but also about being unable to escape certain experiences like visiting people with dogs and their furniture being covered in pet hair or being licked by a dog, or a cat rubbing up against her leg,” says Newman. “Alice handles this by making a point to let other adults expose her toddler to petting and playing with dogs, and teaching her child the skills involved in safely approaching and being around dogs and other animals.”
2. Don't Catastrophize
“Hold mommy’s hand so you don’t get hit by a car,” you might exclaim as you cross the road. “Don’t open that top window, you could fall out and die,” you might frantically yell when you see your child playing with a window latch.
It’s our jobs as parents to keep our children safe, but how we communicate the hows and whys is critical. Catastrophizing - letting your mind go to the worst possible outcome - can take root in your child and affect everything from their courage at kindergarten to their willingness to apply for jobs when they’re older.
Instead of catastrophizing, remember that you don’t need to scare your children with extreme scenarios. Explain, calmly and gently, how to be safe and healthy and happy, versus how to not get hit by a semi-truck. Help your child imagine the BEST possible outcome, instead of fearing the WORST possible scenario.
3. As You Learn, Teach
As you work on your own strategies for managing fear and stress and worry, it’s a valuable opportunity to teach your child some of these same coping mechanisms. “If, for example, you are working on thinking rationally during times of stress, you can practice those same skills with your child,” suggests the Child Mind Institute. (3)
Dr. Jamie Howard, director of the Stress and Resilience Program at the Child Mind Institute, advises the following: “Be aware of your facial expressions, the words you choose, and the intensity of the emotion you express, because kids are reading you. They’re little sponges and they pick up on everything.”
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