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How Parents With Anxiety Can Help Their Children

“For parents who experience excessive worry and anxiety, their worry can often extend to worrying about their children or worrying about what other people think of their parenting or their child,” says Associate Professor Jennifer Hudson, from the Centre for Emotional Health and Department of Psychology Macquarie University. And because anxious parents often have anxious children, if you’re a parent and have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it’s a good idea to ask your therapist and doctor about your child’s risk of developing anxiety.

Sometimes called ‘the trickle-down effect’, researchers have found that children of parents diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are up to seven times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder themselves. The increased risk is probably due to a combination of genetic influence and exposure to parental behaviours: “up to 65 percent of children living with an anxious parent meet criteria for an anxiety disorder” says Dr Golda Ginsburg, a child psychologist at the Johns Hopkin’s Children’s Center in the United States. And Professor Hudson has noted a similar experience at the Centre for Emotional Health in Australia:  For the families seeking help for their child's anxiety in our clinic, over 70% of them will also have an anxiety disorder. In another sample of Australian shy inhibited preschoolers recruited from the community, 50% of their parents had a current anxiety disorder and 73% had an anxiety disorder at some time in their life.”

However, the last thing a parent with an anxiety diagnosis needs is something more to worry about; reassurance comes from evidence that if parents are aware of their anxiety- related behaviours and participate in family therapy sessions, the potential for their children to develop anxiety may be reduced. And there is more good news: Professor Hudson points out that she has “found, anecdotally, that parents with anxiety are often more motivated to help their anxious child. They know what it is like. They understand what it is like to experience a lifetime of worry and they don't want this for their children. 

Family Therapy for Parental Anxiety Disorders

At Hopkin’s Children’s, a team of researchers studied 40 children aged between 7 and 12 not diagnosed with anxiety themselves, but who had one or more parents diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Half of the children and their families were enrolled in eight weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy, while the other half were put on a waiting list and received no therapy at the time of the study, but were offered therapy a year later. The program, consisting of hour-long weekly sessions was designed to help parents identify and change behaviours believed to contribute to anxiety in the children, while at the same time teaching children coping and problem-solving skills.

Within a year, 30 percent of the children in the no-intervention group had developed an anxiety disorder, compared to none of the children who participated in the family-based therapy. Parents along with the researchers who evaluated the study’s participants, reported a 40 percent drop in anxiety symptoms in the year following the prevention program. There was no reduction of anxiety symptoms among children on the waiting list.

Awareness of Parenting Style in Social Anxiety Disorders

This month, Hopkin’s Children’s released the results of a further study looking at the behaviours of parents with social anxiety disorder.  Although not looking at how the behaviours impact children, the team found that parents with a social anxiety disorder tended to show less warmth and affection towards their children, criticised their children more and more often expressed doubts about their child’s ability to perform a task. If these parental anxiety characteristics are present to a chronic degree, they are known to increase or lead to anxiety in children.

Australian research has also connected maternal anxiety and ‘over-involvement’ (protectiveness and ‘controlling’ decision-making) with an increased risk of children developing symptoms of anxiety. Results from a longitudinal study over 5 years by Professor Hudson and Dr Helen Dodd at the School of Social Work and Psychology, University of East Anglia, indicated that children whose mothers showed maternal anxiety and maternal ‘over-involvement’ at age four were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with child anxiety at age nine.

Not all parents with social anxiety disorder will show these characteristics, but by being aware of the risk, parents might be able to change their habits of communication with their children.  And because some anxious children remain symptomatic even after participating in intervention programs, it is important to understand and identify the other influences on a child’s anxiety symptoms.  Researchers believe it’s possible that apart from genetic predisposition, the ‘anxiety transmission’ process may also be behavioural from parent to child, from child to parent or even ‘bi-directional’. It is known from twin, sibling and adoption studies that a genetic component may explain about one third of the cases of childhood anxiety.

Tips for Parents with Diagnosed Anxiety Disorders  

One of the key symptoms of anxiety is avoidance, says Professor Hudson; that is, when a “person starts to avoid situations that scare or worry them leading to restricted activities.“ For example, parents with social anxiety may limit their child's play dates to avoid uncomfortable social situations or not allow their child to explore their environment in order to keep them extremely safe. And as research indicates that a parent’s anxiety and the degree to which they ‘overprotect’ their child are associated with later child anxiety, it is helpful for anxious parents to be aware of the tendency to ‘avoid’ and be aware of other anxiety–related behaviour.

The following ideas are provided with an important caution - they are based only on general ideas about parental anxiety taken from anxiety research. Every family will be different and parents should rely on their doctor’s and expert therapist’s advice for the best approach to their family’s situation: