Anxious parents can produce anxious children, so take a breath

How to break the pattern of reacting unhelpfully to your child’s anxiety

In the first article of the series two weeks ago, we spoke of the many strengths that anxious children can possess such as sensitivity, good imaginations and planning abilities which can be harnessed to help them manage their worries and overcome their problems. In this article we describe how anxiety can be maintained by the response of other people particularly parents in the case of children. Being a “worrier” tends to run in families – anxious children tend to have anxious parents. While anxious parents can share the strengths of their children, they can also share the tendency to over-worry which can aggravate their own children’s anxiety.

Two problematic responses

When reacting as a parent to an anxious child or teenager there are two problematic responses that can make matters worse. The first is to over engage and attend to the worries by taking them on and immediately becoming anxious yourself. This can cause the child to worry more, to believe their worry is uncontainable and for their anxiety to escalate. The second problematic response is to not listen or dismiss the child’s worry sometimes in an exasperated manner. The parent becomes frustrated with the child’s anxiety and tells them to “snap out of it”. This response can make the child feel bad about their anxiety and to worry that they will never be able to change. It can even cause them to think there is something “wrong” with them and as a result their anxiety increases.

These problematic responses can often be employed one after the other and sometimes in the same morning! For example, if a child is worried about going to school, a parent might initially listen and “worry with them” before getting exasperated and angry, trying to force the child out the door which leads to a “meltdown”. These negative cycles leave everyone feeling bad and are damaging if repeated daily.

Pausing in the face of anxiety

So how do you break the pattern of reacting unhelpfully to your child’s anxiety? The most important thing to do is to “pause” when your child becomes anxious. Don’t react to their anxiety and instead try to remain calm. While your child might get aggravated or into a tizzy or even have a meltdown, you commit to being calm and still. You become a relaxed counterbalance to your child’s heightened anxiety. You can visualize yourself as a still point even though your child might be in whirlwind. Responding in this way can be enormously helpful and in itself can help your child calm their emotions.


Responding warmly and empathetically

The second principle is to respond warmly and empathetically to your child. Try to understand and acknowledge what is the source of their worry. For example, you might say “Many people find their worries get on top of them just before they go to sleep” or “I know you are anxious about going to meet your friends, lots of people feel this way initially”. The goal is to accurately name what your child might be feeling in an understanding way that does not make them feel “bad” about their feelings. Sometimes this can be very hard to do, as it may not be clear about what your child is worrying about and they might find it hard to talk. In these situations, you might have to do a bit of detective work or spend time encouraging your child to express what is on their mind. In future articles I will describe the importance of having a daily listening time with your children when you give them space to talk and get things off their chest. The key is to respond in an empathetic understanding way.

Choosing an effective response

Once you have acknowledged the anxiety the next step is to take action and to positively respond. Taking action does not mean you give into the child’s worry and let them avoid the situation that causes the worry. For example, if your child gets anxious going out the door to school, you might acknowledge their upset and still insist they go to school (in future articles we will talk about how you can address the underlying issues that might cause the anxiety).

In the long term, overcoming anxiety is not about avoiding the situation that causes the worry but instead learning to face it and to overcome it. In a nutshell, you want to help your child “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

Anxious while sleeping – an example

Choosing an effective response means that you “pause” in order to break a pattern that is not working. For example, if your young son is anxious about falling asleep alone, and you have got into the habit of lying with him until he falls asleep ( which is exhausting for you and does not teach him how to manage his anxiety), you can break this pattern gradually as follows. Instead, of lying with him as he falls asleep you agree a system of periodically checking on him. You suggest he lies and relaxes on the bed and agree that you will return in five minutes to check on him. If he gets agitated or leaves the bed, you say to him “when you are lying on your bed and calmly relaxing, then I will come back”– this way he only the gets the reward of your comfort once he has put some effort in to managing his anxiety himself. Over time you can increase the length of time between “check ins” so he gradually learns to manage the anxiety by himself and to fall asleep alone (in future articles we will look at ways you can teach children relaxation skills).

Tips for going forward

Take time to reflect about how you respond when your child becomes anxious or starts to worry about something. Do you find yourself ever getting anxious or frustrated in return? Have you got into a pattern of reacting that makes things worse?

The next time it happens, make sure to to pause, tune in and choose a more helpful response

1. Take a pause – Try to remain calm and to manage your own feelings

2. Respond warmly – Try to empathise and understand your child’s anxiety, acknowledge their feelings

3. Choose your response – A calm, sympathetic though sometimes firm response works best.

The next article in the series is on February 7th and will look at how parents can best problem solve the underlying causes of their children’s anxiety.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. See for further articles, courses and books.