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How to Stop the Family Anxiety Cycle

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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 anxiety.

RELATED: Children's Anxiety? It's the Parents' Fault

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 lists

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 to coping.

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.

RELATED: 5-Step Guide to Parenting While Angry

When families learn to keep anxiety in perspective and take small steps toward working through their worries, they empower each other to remain calm and present, and that increases family happiness.

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Image via Katie Hurley

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