It is said that an apple never falls far off from the tree. This has been proven wrong on many occasions. Having a murderer for a father does not condemn you to become a murderer. Having a depressed parent doesn’t necessarily mean that depression will stalk you all your life, lurking around the corner and waiting to strike as soon as you let your guard down. You are not doomed to a life of misery just because your parents were miserable.
Still, there are many occasions on which the apple does fall close to the tree. One such occasion is related to anxiety. Anxiety is a crazy thing. It follows entire generations and doesn’t easily let up. In other words, if you struggle with anxiety, your child is likely to struggle with anxiety too, and there is evidence to back that up.
But here’s the crazier thing: anxiety is rarely genetic in nature. Rarely do people “inherit” anxiety. Your anxiety — and your child’s anxiety — rarely has anything to do with the faults in your genes. Rather, it is often a learned trait. What this means is that an anxious parent does certain things, behaves in a certain way and reacts to situations in a certain manner, sparking his or her kid’s anxiety.
So, the one positive thing about the passing of anxiety across generations is that if it is a learned trait, then it can be unlearned. Researchers have put much effort into unearthing how to best respond to your anxiety to avoid passing it onto your child. Here are five science-backed tips to help avoid passing your anxiety onto your child:
1. Get up-close and personal with your anxiety.
Did you know that most anxiety experienced in adulthood can be traced back to childhood? Did you also know that you cannot deal effectively with your anxiety if you do not know what drives it?
Write down what makes you most anxious: certain situations? Certain people? Certain environments? How do you react when you encounter these anxiety-provoking situations? Having this information is a first important step to help you fight anxiety.
2. Walk the walk.
Coming up with strategies to help your child deal with his anxiety will not work if you model anxious behavior. Our children learn more from who we are than from what we say, that’s just the way it is. In other words, if your son always sees you reacting to a certain situation with anxiety, he is likely to develop anxious feelings in relation to that situation. Anxiety might as well be a hidden emotion, but it is reflected in the words we use and in our reactions to others or to specific situations.
Modeling the right behavior does not mean pretending to have conquered anxiety. What’s more, research suggests that shielding your child from anxiety makes it worse, not better. The right behavior may mean talking with your child about situations that make you anxious to show him that anxiety is a normal emotion. It may also mean focusing on solutions: “I was anxious before making my presentation, so I took a few deep breaths.” Helping your child view anxiety as a manageable emotion goes a long way in helping him develop an appropriate response to his own anxiety.
3. Dance even when the world around you seems to be falling apart.
Is your glass half-full or half-empty? We all see the world through different lenses and our perceptions of the events that occur in our lives shape not only how we react to them, but also how our kids learn to react to them. Young children interpret the events in their lives by watching how we interpret them. If your perception of the world is that of a scary and dangerous place, your child will grow up scared of the world around her. If you view every situation as an insurmountable catastrophe, fear will find a place in your home and never leave.
Developing an optimist approach to life’s challenges can help calm anxiety and can make it easier to deal with even the most challenging situations. Dancing in the midst of challenges simply means experiencing those challenges but remaining optimistic that those too will pass. It is not about pretending that hard situations do not exist, but rather about understanding that even in the midst of grief, there can be hope.
4. Make a conscious effort to fight anxiety.
You don’t lose weight by saying “I want to lose weight.” You don’t learn how to paint by saying “I want to become a painter.” You get to your objective by setting specific goals and following through. Making a conscious effort to fight anxiety means being aware of what drives that anxiety then coming up with a strategy to help manage that anxiety. Tackling questions such as “What is the worst that could happen anyway?” or “How can I react differently next time?” may help inform your strategy against anxiety. Don’t forget to fill your anxiety toolbox!
5. Do whatever works for you!
There is no “one-fits all” approach in many areas of our lives, and anxiety is no different. Some things that work for others will not work for you and that’s okay: do whatever works for you. If fleeing from an anxiety-provoking situation is the only option that works for you, do so. Remember, though, that fleeing is a quick-fix solution and there are things in life from which we cannot flee. Get help if necessary. A good therapist can help you find an appropriate solution to tackle your anxiety.