Listen: Dr Carly Johnco on how to reduce anxiety in your children.
If you’re a parent and you struggle with anxiety, it’s not unusual to pass on some of your anxieties to your kids.
In fact, anxiety is the most common mental health problem children face, and experts say their parents’ anxiety is one of the factors that causes it. But thankfully, there are ways to prevent this pass-the-baton effect.
In a chat with Hope 103.2 breakfast host Duncan Robinson, psychologist Dr Carly Johnco shared a few tips on how parents can help their kids to be anxiety-free.
Dr Johnco, who works for the Centre For Emotional Health at Macquarie University, explained the three main ways anxiety can be passed down to the next generation.
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1. There is a Genetic Component to Anxiety
One key factor is biological programming, otherwise known as genes. And that’s something we can’t control.
“It’s not straightforward as the genetics around how tall you are, or your eye colour, but we do know that kids of parents who struggle with anxiety are at an increased risk of developing emotional difficulty,” said Dr Johnco.
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2. Anxious Parents Often Model Anxious Behaviour
While we can’t change our genes, thankfully there are two factors that parents can control. One is the way they respond to fear-inducing situations.
If you display fear and anxiety outwardly to your children, and in particular avoidance, your children will pick up on this and unconsciously begin to copy your reactions.
“Where possible, it’s ideal to model brave or courageous responses as a parent”
“Avoidance is one of the key things that maintains anxiety,” Dr Johnco said. “A parent, for example, who is afraid of dogs, will often become quite cautious around them and more likely to keep their kids away from dogs, and this can teach the child anxious responses.
“Where possible, it’s ideal to model brave or courageous responses as a parent, so that children are seeing a compatible message in what you’re saying and what you’re doing.”
Instead of avoiding a friendly dog; consider patting the dog yourself and allow your child to do the same.
3. Our Reaction to our Child’s Anxiety Can Make it Worse
The other way parents can pass on anxiety to their children, is by how they respond when they see their children displaying anxiety and fear.
Telling them to stop, or punishing them, are surefire ways to maintain your child’s anxiety or make it worse.
“Telling someone just not to be anxious, is very rarely an effective strategy,” Dr Johnco said. “If you’ve got a parent who’s very cautious around dogs who turns to their child and says ‘don’t be afraid of dogs, they’re quite incompatible messages’. Telling them ‘don’t be afraid’, is often met with a ‘yes, but’ from the child.
“That anxiety will sometimes actually increase, as they say ‘what if the dog bites me’?
Getting Help for Anxiety
According to NIMH, both genetic and environmental factors can be risk factors for anxiety disorders, including:
- Shyness, or behavioural inhibition, in childhood
- Having few economic resources
- Being divorced or widowed
- Exposure to stressful life events in childhood and adulthood
- Anxiety disorders in close biological relatives
- Parental history of mental disorders
If you are concerned about the level of anxiety in yourself or your child, consider chatting to your GP about treatment and therapy options. If you’re struggling and need emergency help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.