Parental Anxiety and the Effects on Their Children

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November 12, 2019
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Several years ago, I happened to be waiting on line at an amusement park when a bee flew into the general vicinity.  A young mother was holding her toddler and waiting with a friend directly in front of me.  As the bee flew near, the mother and her friend immediately started running, flailing their arms, and screaming in hysterics, all the while carrying the bewildered toddler.  They caused quite the commotion and drew the attention of everyone within a ten foot radius.  As I watched, I remember thinking that their actions were a great way to initiate and foster an early bee phobia in the toddler.  Although fear is irrational and real, I wondered why this mother did not try to cover it up in front of her toddler. 

Parental anxiety can have a great impact on children.  After all, children look to their parents for messages and guidance in regards to their experiences with the outside world, especially if they are ambiguous or new experiences.  Children look to their parents to assess whether something is dangerous or a threat to their safety.   As they encounter a new person, are presented with a new food, or step too close to the edge of the sidewalk, they check their caregiver’s face for messages and feedback about what they are doing.  If their caregiver verbalizes a warning or threatens consequence, a child will absorb the message and act accordingly.  “Safe” or “dangerous” gets linked to the experience and is carefully filed within their little memory banks. 

Interestingly enough, parental messages can come from both verbal and non-verbal sources.  If a child reaches out to touch the stove and is met with a disapproving look or a stern shake of the head from their parent, a similar message of danger is received.  If a child curiously picks up a new book and their parent nods with encouragement, that child receives the green light to go ahead with their exploration.

Parents need to be mindful that although anxiety, personality, and temperament are hereditary factors, whether a child will actual present with anxiety largely depends on their environment and upbringing.  If a child has a genetic predisposition to be anxious, but is raised in a calm and anxiety-free environment, the child will not necessarily develop and display anxious traits.   

Parents are often unaware of the impact that their own anxiety can have on their children.  If a parent creates a highly charged and anxious environment, the child will pick up on it and feed off of the anxiety.  If a caregiver perceives the world to be a dangerous and scary place, it is very likely that the child will form a similar opinion and function that way too.

However, anxiety does not have to be automatically diffused from parent to child in an anxious household.  In knowing what a profound impact parental anxiety can have on their children, it is important for parents to be aware and vigilant of their own behavior and actions.  The best way for a parent to help their child is by managing their own anxiety and stress as effectively as possible, in addition to teaching and modeling healthy coping strategies for their children.

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So that day, when the mother and her friend started shrieking and running in various directions from the bee, they were sending strong verbal and nonverbal messages to the toddler.  Their inflated response taught the toddler that bees are scary and dangerous, likely prompting an anxious response in the child’s future encounters with bees.  I will never know what impact this incident truly had on this toddler.  However, I like to think that the mother ended up realizing and addressing her bee-related anxieties to avoid any long-term impacts to her child.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.