For every event or project on my plate, I spend hours, if not days, weeks or months, chewing over the details again and again. I make lists. I configure plans. I plan outfits and snacks. If travel is involved, I run directions and miles, scenarios and traffic nightmares until my neck muscles are permanently knotted below my ears and my breath is tight in my chest.
I am an anxious person, and it is probably no surprise that I have an anxious child. Parenting an anxious child when you are an anxious parent comes with exponential new degrees of complication I never could have dreamed of before becoming a mom.
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According to Dr. Jennifer Jipson, an educational advisory board member of The Goddard School and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Child Development at California Polytechnic State University,, “Many studies show a familial component to anxiety issues, so situations in which both parents and children are prone to anxiety are common.”
This plays out each week in myriad ways, but as an example, even though my third-grader had an entire week to turn in his homework, his anxious mind took one look at the packet on Monday and got overwhelmed.
“I’ll never get all of this done,” he cried, facedown on the kitchen table. “I’ll never have time to play with Daddy or see my friends.”
If they could just stop worrying, or calm down, they would have.
My own anxious thoughts followed like a toxic algae bloom. If we don’t get his homework done, he’ll learn bad habits, I’ll spend his teen years fighting him, and he’ll never get into college, oh my god.
“It’s going to be fine,” I said instead. “Just take it one page at a time.”
My son began to cry and moan, and I knew that I’d blown it.
Crystal Clancy, a Minnesota-based therapist, suggests this is not a helpful way to approach an anxious child. “I often hear usually well-meaning parents say things like ‘Don’t worry about it,’ or ‘Calm down’ because they don’t know what else to say.”
Unfortunately, these kinds of “helpful” comments actually come across to an anxious child as dismissive.
“If they could just stop worrying, or calm down, they would have,” Clancy points out.
Many times, anxiety comes for my son with its claws and fangs just when he’s trying to sleep. “What if my math teacher keeps me in at recess? What if nobody wants to play with me? How much longer will you and Daddy be alive?” His small face contorts into furrows.
His anxious questions are often rhetorical, leaving me in that gray area of parenting where I can’t provide easy comfort, which then kicks my own anxiety into gear. What kind of mother can’t soothe her own child? What if he needs therapy or medication one day?
“The most important response is validation,” Katie May, a licensed teen therapist in Pennsylvania, says. “When you tell your children that their thoughts and feelings are not as bad as they are communicating, you’re rejecting their personal experience of their emotions, which may cause them to shut down.”
On the contrary, giving your child understanding and “nonjudgmental acceptance” can help quell the anxiety. It’s more helpful to acknowledge that you are both anxious, and to point your child to where your anxiety manifests in your body.
“You might say ‘My stomach is in knots and my heart is beating really fast,’” she recommends.
Tackling anxiety head on with validation and gentleness for both parent and child is the best approach.
To really help your child become less anxious, however, you must work on your own anxiety, whether through mindfulness techniques, therapy or exercise.
Jipson also recommends, “Don’t overly protect your child from situations that can cause anxiety. Show children that you believe they are competent by not hovering.”
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Ultimately, therapists agree that you shouldn’t "save" children from potentially anxiety provoking situations, either. Avoiding doesn't give children opportunities to develop and practice skills for coping with anxiety.
Here’s a helpful checklist for anxious parents and children:
· Validate the anxiety.
· Acknowledge you both feel it.
· Resist the urge to make it go away or make it better.
· Engage in “square breathing.” Hold your breath for a count of four. Repeat this four times. Breathing slows your heart rate and grounds you in the moment.
· Count objects in the room. A game of “I spy” or simple counting can help both of you return to the present moment and take your minds off the anxiety trigger.
· Know the difference between mild anxiety and serious anxiety. If your child’s anxiety is interfering with your child’s overall happiness, causing sleep troubles, nightmares or accidents, or if they're getting into trouble at school, it may be time to seek professional help.