6 Subtle Ways Parents Increase Their Child’s Anxiety
More and more emergency room admissions these days are directly correlated to excessive anxiety brought on by stress. When we hear about anxiety, we think of our own or a good friend’s; rarely do we consider it in the context of our children. After all, children are supposed to spend their youth playing - not worrying about things happening in their life.
A March 2022 study published in JAMA Pediatrics reported that even prior to the pandemic anxiety was becoming more prevalent among children and adolescents. In fact, by 2020 approximately 5 million children experienced anxiety. Those numbers continue to rise, and parents are often the last to recognize the symptoms. Kids don’t talk about feeling anxious, and parents may brush off complaints about a headache or tummy ache or make excuses when their child withdraws from family activities.
Parents are busy and sometimes, in their hurriedness, avoid talking about how a child feels in lieu of getting them to school on time. When children think it’s not okay to discuss what they’re feeling, they internalize their uncomfortable feelings, leading to sadness and ultimately depression.
You want to do the best for your child. No parent purposely tries to instill anxiety in their child, but these six subtle actions can increase or create anxiety in your child.
Denying your own anxiety, encouraging your child to avoid theirs. Even when parents are out of touch with their own anxiety, their child can feel it. Instead of dismissal, when your child complains of a tummy or headache talk to them about it. Are they feeling worried or upset? Follow this conversation with a self-check. Are you feeling anxious and projecting your anxiety onto your child? If so, explain to your child what worries you, and remind them that you are an adult and can take care of yourself. Reassure your child that they did not cause your anxiety (with older children, if your anxiety is related to them, schedule a separate one on one talk). Never allow your child to feel responsible for your anxiety.
Avoiding conversations about feelings. Sometimes parents feel pressured by time, worrying that discussions of feelings with their child t will turn into a day-long conversation. Perhaps you grew up in a family where feelings weren’t validated or respected. Your child needs to hear that what they feel is important and valid. Validating a feeling doesn’t mean you give in to your child’s wants; rather, you communicate that they are heard, understood, and you will always act in their best interest. This has nothing to do with them getting their own way.
Hovering over your child or being too cautious. When you ask your child to be careful, watch out or constantly warn them that they can get hurt, your child becomes anxious and worried about trying new things. You also send the message that they aren’t capable, lowering their confidence and filling them with doubt. Your job as a parent is to encourage your child and set safety measures without limiting them from trying new things. Failure, falling, and taking small risks are important components of childhood. Don’t let your good intentions to avoid injuries prevent your child from necessary childhood experiences.
Praising results without mentioning effort. When parents project their need to win onto their child, the child begins feeling overwhelmed, pressured, and anxious. Not everyone can win and recognizing and validating their child’s efforts reduces anxiety. Kids need praise from their parents, but when praise is limited to when their child wins, the child often withdraws and refuses to even try. Look for the effort your child puts into their work. Sportsmanship, integrity, compassion for other players, and dedication to practice are much more important lessons for adulthood than winning.
Wishy washy parenting style. Sending your child mixed messages provokes anxiety. You want your children to achieve in academics, but you also want them to enjoy childhood. Prioritize what you say. Help your children find balance. Build a schedule with them that allows ample time for homework, relaxation and play time with their friends. Reinforce the schedule so your child doesn’t cram all night for a test worrying they will fail because they didn’t study a little each day.
Communicating without listening. One of the worst parenting habits involves 20 questions. When parents ask too many questions, children become anxious. For example, asking your child if they are worried about not having friends confirms your child’s worst fear and tells them they should worry. A much better approach conversing with your child is to ask one or two leading questions - then listen. As you listen, be curious and ask them to tell you more about how a situation felt. Children want to talk to their parents, and they want their parents to listen, validate, and empathize without judgment.
If you’re a parent, you worry. It’s natural and completely normal. Show your children healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety. Teach them about deep breathing exercises and to visualize joyful times, but above all, listen. When parents listen and reassure their child that they will tackle the worry together, children calm down. There are many things that make children anxious, but not having a supportive parent who cares and takes time to listen should never be one of them.