The Anxious Cycle: How Children Inherit Our Anxiety
As a victim of childhood trauma, I have a propensity toward anxiety. It is my reaction of choice when life gets difficult. Having lived with anxiety most of my life, I never knew there was another way to live. I assumed it was normal. I assumed everybody lived this way.
I became so used to the way anxiety made me feel, I could function through almost any symptoms. Sometimes, the panic attacks would paralyze me momentarily, but I could work through the quick breathing and the heart racing. At the end of the day, I would be exhausted, as though I had run a marathon, but I could make it work.
That changed when I had children. My children were triggering my anxiety on a new scale. I could barely make it through a day without a full-scale panic attack. I was falling apart fast and I knew I needed to make changes.
When I started my trauma recovery work, I had no idea how intense that journey would be. I had no idea because I didn’t remember the trauma. I had repressed most of my childhood memories. As I journeyed through the memories of my childhood, I learned two valuable lessons:
- My anxiety was the outer manifestation of a war within myself. My inner child, the part of me which was inundated by the trauma, was trying to express the pain. But the conscious part of me, which was attempting to run my external life, was suppressing it as much as possible.
- My children were a constant reminder of that inner child I was trying to suppress. I could not live in the same house with them and continue to ignore the past.
I did everything I could to shield my children from my anxiety. I was already equipped with the ability to hide my anxiety from the general public, and this was helpful. However, I had never been triggered like this. I had never retrieved memories before. And before a memory, my anxiety would skyrocket as my internal war reached new levels.
There were two aspects of my anxiety expression that I could not control. First, children have the ability to read us on a level that adult acquaintances can’t. They are tuned in to a different signal. They pick up on our energy. Even when I was an Oscar-worthy actress, they could tell something was wrong, and they internalized it.
Second, while they may not have witnessed my racing heart or my shortness of breath directly, they noticed (and copied) the external symptoms of my anxiety. Those symptoms manifested in three ways:
Before I had kids, I had severe OCD. It was bad. I was known to comb rug fringe. As a child, I had learned to control whatever I could control. I had learned that I could stay alive this way. And unfortunately, this continued in adulthood.
As I became a parent, I realized I had to leave this behind or we would all go crazy. But the perfectionism stuck around in other ways. My expectations were high for myself and my children. I was a stickler for a schedule. And while that worked well when creating a predicable schedule for toddlers, it didn’t work well when I needed to be patient. The children learned to hurry, and not in a good way. To this day, they are constantly aware of the time and usually ask if we are running late.
- Focusing on the bad.
Anxiety tends to direct the focus to what might go wrong. I used to consider myself an excellent planner. I could foresee almost anything. At work, I was known for this ability. Unfortunately, in daily life, it tended to manifest as constant worry. I thought I was doing myself a favor. I thought I was staying on top of things or avoiding disasters. But in reality, I was using most of my energy to worry excessively.
I was sure my children didn’t know. After all, they could not read minds. But clearly the message was getting through in my actions and unconscious comments. It was best to focus on the bad, just to be safe. So now, I notice my daughter’s tendency to mention how something isn’t going to work out before she tries it. I remind her to focus on the good and I try to focus on it myself. But old habits can be hard to break.
I grew up in an environment where boundaries and children were not respected. It took a while for me to see my children as little humans with the same rights as everyone else. They had the same right to speak up for themselves. They could ask for privacy. And they could provide input about how we would spend our day. If children feel a lack of respect for their space, they will naturally feel anxious. While we have made great strides in learning about personal space and asking permission, my children are still learning the value of personal space and how to fully respect words like “no” and “stop.”
If you notice that anxiety runs high in your family, there are steps you can take:
- Practice self-awareness. What attitudes and actions are you bringing to your children? Bring attention to it. Take time to discuss it collaboratively with your children.
- Try a screening tool. Sometimes it can be hard to notice anxiety if it has always been there. There are ways to determine if you are struggling with anxiety in your daily life.
- Use an online test for children. When children are anxious, it may not be obvious to a parent.
While anxiety may not be obvious if we have always lived with it, it can negatively affect our children’s approach to life as adults. Take time to understand how it may be affecting your family, bring awareness to the manifestations and stop the generational cycle. While you may never know the full effect of your actions, the smallest changes can make a lifelong impact on your family’s mental health.
Anxious woman photo available from Shutterstock
Corey, E. (2018). The Anxious Cycle: How Children Inherit Our Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 5, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-anxious-cycle/