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Kids today face high levels of stress . Between increased academics, enrichment
programs and the pressure to excel in at least one sport, kids face a lot of
pressure. That stress and pressure can
result in symptoms of anxiety.
But there is another critical factor at play. Anxiety can have a trickle-down effect in
families. Anxious parents, as it turns
out, raise anxious kids. Even
worse? A child's anxiety can further
increase a parent's anxiety, thereby creating a debilitating cycle of family
A new study published in the American
Journal of Psychiatry shows that parents and kids affect each other's
anxious tendencies just by living in the same house. Results of the study suggest that children
take on anxious behaviors by observing their parents and hearing their anxious
words, or that "negative parenting behaviors", as in trying to shield kids from
every little thing, might also lead to anxious behavior in children.
Mild anxiety is actually fairly normal. The anxious part of our brain that tells us
to look both ways and then check one more time helps us remain focused and
present. But severe anxiety can be
debilitating. When anxiety cycles
through a family, kids can become fearful and avoid engaging in age-appropriate
activities. It's important to keep
anxiety in check and get help from a mental health professional when anxiety
becomes too difficult to manage independently.
There are a few strategies families can use to decrease
anxiety within the family.
1. Facts vs. fears
When irrational fears take center stage, intrusive thoughts
become the norm. It's reasonable to
worry that morning traffic and a slow start will make you late for a meeting, but
assuming that you'll end up in a five-car pileup on the freeway is unreasonable. It can also compromise your driving ability.
When worry creeps in, it's helpful to create facts vs. fears lists. On a poster board or whiteboard,
make two lists of the thoughts causing feelings of fear and worry. Place them in the fact (traffic might make me
late) or fear (massive car accident might hurt me) categories, and ground the fears in
reality. When you step back and look at
the fears on paper, you can talk about the reality of those fears and move on
2. Checks and balances
Worry is contagious when one worrier sets off another
worrier. Instead of spiraling into a conversation
about fears and worries every time a family member feels anxious about
something, create checks and balances.
Families fueled by anxiety tend to engage in avoidance behaviors. In other words, they don't take a ton of risks—even the healthy and developmentally appropriate ones.
I often teach an anxious child to say, "I'm feeling worried,
can you check my worries for me?" In
asking this simple question, an anxious child can get help grounding his fears
in reality. The "worry checker" can help
the child separate irrational fears from facts. In families, siblings and spouses can all learn to act as "worry
checkers" to restore balance to the home.
3. Stress less corner
Sometimes a dedicated stress-free center in the home helps
family members work through their anxious thoughts and feelings. In a calming spot in the house that includes
plenty of natural light, create a stress-free zone. Comfy seating is a must and be sure to stock
your zone with books, journals, coloring books, stress balls, lavender eye
pillows, calming music and other calming objects (wishing stones can be great
for kids.) Knowing what to do when
anxiety kicks in is half the battle—having a stress-free zone in the home
provides a safe place to relax and try calming strategies.
4. Healthy risks jar
Families fueled by anxiety tend to engage in avoidance
behaviors. In other words, they don't
take a ton of risks—even the healthy and developmentally appropriate ones. Healthy risk-taking helps kids and adults
push their boundaries and learn about themselves.
In a clear glass jar, make a family wishlist of healthy
risks worth trying. If an irrational
fear of drowning keeps your family away from water, for example, you might set
a goal to visit a beach after some swimming lessons. Think about the things you avoid but wish
that you could try and put them on slips of paper in the jar. Once a month, pull one slip and make a plan to
work up to taking that risk. A step-by-step
plan to get from avoidance to trying something new can help families decrease
their overall anxiety level one worry at a time.