Do the two things go together? Sometimes.
Unfortunately anxiety or stress can be contagious. A 2019 study indicated that children of parents with anxiety or depression were significantly more likely to have it.
Children are wired to pick up subtle signs of safety or danger from us. If we are often anxious, our child may unconsciously perceive a lack of safety. There is evidence that there might even be an element of heritability to anxiety. It can also be linked to other conditions such as autism.
If you are worried about being a “helicopter parent”, finding it difficult to leave your child to engage in risky play or do things independently, anxiety might be the cause. Taking healthy risks is an important part of your child’s development, allowing them to understand their limits and those of others. It also helps them learn how to make decisions and cultivate a growth mindset.
It is important that you don’t blame yourself if you or your child struggle with anxiety, it is often something which is handed down intergenerationally. There are things you can do to help and recover over time.
Signs of anxiety in adults or children include:
- feelings of restlessness
- feeling wound up or on edge
- feelings of worry
- difficulty concentrating
- difficulty sleeping
- being quick to anger or react
- muscle aches
- stomach aches
- difficulty sleeping
- perceiving relatively safe situations as potentially harmful
- persistent thoughts that something bad is going to happen
What to do
I have struggled with anxiety in the past, in part, related to the complex trauma I accumulated during my upbringing. I am a lot better these days but suspect it is something I will always be prone to. I understand the pain anxiety can cause. It is easy to feel hopeless and trapped at times. When my son was a baby there were moments when I felt so anxious that I would stop my car at the side of the road to sob into my steering wheel. If you are going through an acute period of anxiety please reach out for a chat. You can contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The strategies below can also be extremely effective with regular practice, you can also learn them alongside your child:
It is easy to get stuck in a cycle of self blame, especially if you notice your anxiety impacting your child, especially if it makes you more angry and reactive than usual. It is important to remember that it didn’t start with you. Pausing to offer deep compassion to yourself can be very healing.
Forgive your child
Behaviours which we label as naughty may in fact be the result of anxiety. An example would be if your child is quick to react or anger. Read more on this here.
Cultivate a daily practice
Research by neurobiologist Dan Siegel shows that practising meditation creates great connectivity between regions of the brain. This has been linked to a reduction in both anxiety and depression. If we meditate for just five minutes a day we are doing important work in teaching our nervous system how to calm down. If you have never meditated before, start with simple techniques such as taking a deep breath in and lengthening the out breath.
You could try “finger breathing” with your child. Tracing around the outside of the fingers on one hand, breathing in as they go up the finger and out on the way down. See diagram below.
Name your feelings
When you are feeling stressed you might start to feel like you can’t think straight! Simply naming your feelings or describing what is going on for you can be an effective way to calm down. It is also a good way of role modelling healthy behaviour for your child.
To support your child, in moments of high stress, I recommend that you try “emotion coaching”, an approach developed by John Gottman. The key are elements are affirming/validating your child’s feelings and supporting them to describe what they are thinking and feeling eg.
“It looks like you are having a difficult time at the moment, would you like to tell me what happened and how that made you feel?”.
Calming sensory environments
Finding places where you or your child can take time to calm down. You could collaborate with them to design this environment, for example a cosy corner with soft lighting and blankets.
Look at what underneath the anxiety
Is it anxiety related to a specific event/kind of activity or more generalised anxiety? Sometimes anxiety might be linked to a traumatic event, if so it is important to take time to process and heal this trauma, potentially with the help of a trained professional.
Anxiety might be triggered in your child by a developmental shift, for example, children between 4 and 6 years old may start to perceive the world as less safe as their awareness grows.
The causes are complex and nuanced. Taking time to explore your past and enquire into when your anxiety is triggered can help you find strategies which work well for you. I am happy to support you with this, reach out to email@example.com.