Researchers recently asked the same question using the Swedish Twin study in which they assessed whether an adolescent’s anxiety was transmitted by genetic or environmental factors.
- The study included 385 identical and 486 fraternal twin families that included adult twin pairs and their offspring, i.e. the parent who was a twin, his/her spouse and offspring and the Aunt/Uncle twin, spouse and offspring.
- By comparing the scores on anxiety measures between children and their parent and contrasting this with scores between children and their parent’s identical twin, they were able to discern the influence of living with a parent as compared to simply sharing a genetic background.
Their findings provide support for the direct, environmental transmission of anxiety from parents to their adolescent offspring over and above any genetic factors.
Yes, parental anxiety is contagious. The greater our anxiety–the greater the anxiety of our kids.
If you are a parent of an adolescent, there is a good chance you are thinking,
“ Great, another thing to be anxious about!”
Maybe, but the fact that we play a part in this transmission of anxiety to our children does allow for the possibility of reducing it by reducing our own anxiety, a win-win.
Self-Reflecting on Parental Transmission of Anxiety
The researchers in this study propose three ways that parental anxiety may influence their children’s anxiety. Even taking a moment to self-reflect on them is valuable. Being mindful of our anxiety regulation and what triggers it, gives us some control. It opens a space where change may begin.
Living with an Anxious Parent
If you are human, you are anxious at times. The question is whether your children observe you as someone who is mostly able to regulate anxiety in a way that is effective and productive or as someone who is anxious and fearful most of the time.
If someone asked your teens how they think you regulate your anxiety i.e. “ calm down” when you are anxious or fearful about work, money, family, the other parent—what would they say? Would it be one of the following? Is it one you want your child to emulate?
She/he… sleeps, cooks, smokes, yells, eats, cleans, prays, drinks, speaks to friends, blames me, listens to music, just keeps working, goes to therapy, exercises….
- Given the attachment bond we have with children, they are aware of our regulation or dysregulation of anxiety on cognitive, physical, emotional and neurophysiological levels–their survival depends on it.
- Everyone grabs a quick fix sometimes – be it food, alcohol, binge TV; but… If there is no effective way to reduce anxiety, problem-solve, or live without being fearful—children will absorb it.
- It is worth recognizing that even apart from the anxiety, children internalize and model the patterns that they see and experience be they attachment patterns or patterns to regulate anxiety.
The Parent’s View of Life Events
Adolescents learn to be fearful of certain environmental stimuli by observing the presence of fear and anxiety in the parent in response to ambiguous, or mildly threatening circumstances. Essentially when a parent uses anxiety-related information processing it impacts the teen’s personal sense of safety and belief in his/her capacity to cope. It suggests that the world is not safe. For example,
- A parent will not take public transportation for fear of being mugged or lost.
- The report in the local paper of a neighborhood robbery keeps a parent talking about it, checking doors, calling neighbors.
- Fear that something will happen while the teen is babysitting keeps the parent calling to check on her.
- Fear about a virus going around school causes arguments between parents about whether the kids should stay home.
- Fear of a making a mistake on a financial form keeps a parent procrastinating.
- Fear about terrorism keeps a TV news channel going without moderation throughout the day.
If the world is experienced as dangerous by a fearful parent…it feels dangerous to the adolescent.
The Parent-Teen Anxiety Loop
Given the inevitable turmoil of the teen years in terms of negotiating identity, peer group acceptance, belief systems, physical appearance, comparisons with others, social media pressure, friend drama, academic demands, sexual experiences, separation issues, risk taking with drugs and alcohol, college pressures, work expectations…the bi-directional triggering of anxiety with parents is very common.
- If we can, this is the time to work on regulating our own anxiety so that we can contain what our teens need us to hold.
- Containing does not mean interrogation, warnings or verbalizations of how anxious you feel (although you might).
- Containing does not mean becoming controlling or rejecting in face of a child’s extreme anxiety.
What Does Containing Mean?
- It means trying to be a compassionate presence, a parent who listens, acknowledges feelings, supports the challenges and celebrates the big and small victories.
- It means working together as parents capitalizing on your strengths, supporting your weaknesses.
- It means knowing that when you are unable to handle anxiety for yourself or your teen,you reach for help.
Anxiety Reducing Strategies For Parents of Teens
- Model and share productive ways to reduce anxiety—invite your teen to walk with you, go to the gym, watch a movie, take a yoga class, try daily mindfulness or join in on what your teen is doing that may help both of you.
- Invite your teen to normalize anxiety in the face of tests, try-outs, friend problems etc.–Everyone feels anxious at these times, the question is how we handle it.
- When in doubt “ Be Curious” and invite your teen to “Be Curious” about what the test will be, how the track meet with go, what friends will come over, etc. Curiosity engages left-brain thinking and moves us out of the anxiety triggered by unknowns and unrealistic expectations.
- Spend time with your teen that involves humor, laughter, fun, music—respite from day to day demands.
- Consider a growth mindset to foster confidence in yourself and your teen by taking on risks and challenges without fear of failure. Re-define failures as lessons learned that invite growth.
- Balance connection and sharing with room for space and privacy for all family members.
- Welcome friends instead of worrying who they are.
- Try not to project your unresolved fears or dreams onto your teen. She may not need to be in the popular group. He doesn’t have to be the captain of the team.
- Evaluate your marriage. Don’t let anxiety about your children become a constant trigger of stress and fighting for you and your spouse—in a vicious cycle, it adds to your teen’s anxiety.
- Recognize when you and or family members are suffering with anxiety and or other feelings of depression, despair etc. to a degree that warrant professional help. Few parents are sorry that they have been proactive in getting help for themselves or their children.
Smile, breathe, and go slowly. Thich Nhat Hanh