Anxiety is part of the human experience and at times the word “anxiety” is watered down. People worry about a wide variety of things. Finances, job stability, relationships, child rearing, health, and safety come to mind as common worries on a day-to-day basis. Not all worrying, however, qualifies as anxiety.

Anxiety disorders include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety that negatively impact functioning. For kids, this might mean that anxiety makes it difficult to get to school each day, make and maintain friends, sleep at night, or focus in the classroom. For adults, work, romantic relationships, friendships, finances, and physical health can suffer. Anxiety manifests in many ways (physical, emotional, and behavioral), and there are several disorders that fall under “anxiety disorders.”

One question that parents often ask is, “Can my anxiety cause anxiety for my kids?” Research shows that anxiety does have a genetic component. Genetic studies show a heritability rate of 30-67% for anxiety disorders. If a first degree relative of a child has an anxiety disorder, there is a chance that the child will also develop anxiety over the course of his or her lifetime.

The other question to consider is this: Can anxiety be catching? As it turns out, anxiety isn’t simply a matter of genetics. Parents and kids can affect each others’ anxious behaviors just by living together. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry looked at almost 900 families with adult twins who have children to determine the effect of environmental influence on anxiety. Results showed strong support of environmental transmission of anxiety from parent to child, independent of genetics. In essence, this study showed that anxious behaviors can be learned and that a child’s anxious behavior can also increase the anxious behavior of the parent. The good news from this research is that parents can take an active role in reducing their child’s anxiety by changing their own behavior and modeling effective coping skills.

Watch out for these potential anxious behaviors in your family:

Anxious talk

Children are masterful listeners at all the wrong times. While you might find yourself repeating the same directions over and over again to no avail, you might also find that the time your children tune in is exactly the time when you think you’re having a private conversation with another adult.

It’s important to process anxious thoughts with someone who will listen and help you work through them, but it’s equally important to note that kids have tendency to fill in their blanks on their own when they hear small pieces of potentially scary information. Talking about your fears of a school shooting with your friends is healthy; anxious talk about this subject in front of or near your kids can heighten their fears and worries.

Children observe their parents’ fears, worries, and anxious talk and can internalize this kind of thinking.

Article continues below

Could you or your child be suffering from anxiety?

Take our 2-minute anxiety quiz to see if you may benefit from further diagnosis and treatment.

Take Anxiety Quiz

Avoidance behaviors

If specific fears trigger you, you might respond by avoiding the fear. You might even back this up by repeatedly discussing the origin of the fear. If, for example, you cross the street every time you encounter a dog, you might also mention the time that you were bitten by a dog as a small child to explain why you view dogs as unpredictable. This is a common reaction to a fear based on previous experience. The trouble with this is that kids pick up on the avoidance behaviors of their parents. In this case, the message they receive is all dogs are scary and unpredictable and should be avoided.

Working through specific fears requires time and practice. To avoid sharing those fears with your kids, enlist the help of your spouse or another adult in their lives to be sure that your children have healthy exposure to your triggers without the alarm center going off. In the case of the fear of dogs, your spouse might take your kids to a pet adoption day to look at and pet dogs and cats to become desensitized to the worry about unpredictability.

Shielding behaviors

Negative parenting behaviors that trigger anxiety can include behaviors that attempt to shield kids from any and all potential harm. Frequent warnings to be careful while playing and placing limits on how high kids can climb or where they can jump from are examples of shielding kids at play. The message here is fairly clear: Playing is dangerous and you will get hurt.

Kids need to engage in healthy risk-taking so they can see what they’re capable of and learn how to make healthy decisions. When parents shield kids from potential threats that might not actually exist, kids worry about become risk-averse.

Parents can reduce the environmental transmission of anxious behaviors by taking the following steps:

Know your own triggers

Keeping a trigger tracker for your own anxious thoughts will help you determine what causes you to feel anxious and where you might need help. Sometimes anxiety is triggered by specific fears, but it can also be triggered by certain places and events, overwhelming amounts of stress, or interacting with others.

When you feel anxious, jot down what’s happening, time of day, and what you were thinking about or doing right before you felt the surge of anxious symptoms. When you see a pattern emerge, you can pinpoint your trigger points.

Encourage healthy risks

When kids learn to push themselves and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses on their own terms, they figure out how to thrive in this world. If watching your kids climb a rock wall triggers your alarm center, ask a friend to join you at the park so you can take a quick walk when you feel anxious. If socializing in large groups is difficult for you but you want your kids to feel comfortable in groups, drop them off at parties or send them with your spouse or another adult.

Kids need encouragement to take healthy risks. You don’t have to join them on that roller coaster, but you do have to let them give it a try.

Talk about healthy coping skills

We all feel anxious at times and growing up isn’t always fun and games. When parents model healthy strategies to manage and cope with stress and anxiety, kids learn that they can cope with their triggers and stressors independently.

  • Teach deep breathing (in for four, hold for four, out for four)
  • Use a mindfulness app to relax
  • Teach progressive muscle relaxation to release muscle tension
  • Take a daily walk together
  • Encourage journaling
  • Create a family worry box to put the worries away

Anxiety can affect everything from school and work to physical health to relationships and beyond. Learning to identify your triggers and find coping skills that work for you not only helps you manage your anxious thought cycle, but it also teaches your kids that they can learn to cope with their own triggers and work through the ups and downs that naturally occur as they grow.

Last Updated: Sep 26, 2018