As parents, we often don’t realize the subtle ways we may be reinforcing anxiety in our children. Awareness of what we’re doing, and a few easy steps, can make a world of difference in the messages our children are taking in about anxiety.
Check into the list below, perhaps you are modeling anxiety in ways you didn’t even realize:
1. Turn Off The Lawnmower: Yes that’s right, YOU may be the lawnmower in your home. Where we used to helicopter, we now mow, clearing challenging obstacles out of the way of our children. We try to protect our children from these overwhelming challenges by removing them completely. This may show up in subtle ways like guiding your child to the right answers in their homework, instead of letting them struggle. Or tying their shoes every day instead of giving them the time and space to practice.
Instead, Allow Your Child to Try and Fail: When we mow challenges out of the way, we aren’t allowing our children to learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are a powerful and important part of child development. In fact, the mere act of trying, failing, learning and trying again is like an antidote to anxiety. Why? Because this process builds confidence. The sense that your child can take on challenging obstacles and figure out how to handle them. When they push through to success they build an internal sense of strength that rivals even the most looming anxiety.
2. Not Managing Your Own Anxiety: Are you the nervous wreck? We frazzled parents are often leaking our own worry and anxiety without even realizing it. Sometimes it comes out in our language “Everything is falling apart! My life is a mess! I can’t handle all this!”. Or we are too filled with our own worry and stress that we become short-tempered with our children, unable to handle their needs on top of our own.
Instead, Be the Model of How to Cope: Our children are watching us carefully learning important lessons in how to handle difficult feelings. While we parents don’t have to be perfect (and often our imperfections are important lessons in themselves), try to remember that you are modeling emotional regulation to your child. That is, showing them through your actions and words how YOU handle tough feelings like anxiety. This takes the challenges of everyday life and uses them as an opportunity. An opportunity for our children to learn important lessons in how to handle their feelings. Feeling overwhelmed by your busy schedule? “Hey sweety, Mommy is really struggling with how much is going on today. I’m taking long, slow deep breaths to help myself feel better. Soon I’m going to go on a little walk during your soccer game because exercise helps me sort my thoughts. Then I’m going to look at my schedule and see what I can do to calm things down a bit.”
3. Avoiding Avoidance: Anxiety’s tried and true defense is avoidance. For example, you will often see someone who is has a fear of spiders, snakes or other creepy crawlies overly-exert themselves to avoid these fears. A germaphobe may over-sanitize their hands and their environment to avoid germs. All of these behaviors have their roots deep in anxiety and it’s best buddy, avoidance.
Instead, Work on Slowly Facing Your Fears: Avoidance crops up because anxiety believes we are in danger. But when it is a perceived danger, such as public speaking or a fear of the escalator, we can consider slowly facing those fears, and being an example for our children in the process. When we tell ourselves “I am strong enough to handle this”, anxiety begins to back down. When we avoid our anxiety it actually increases the anxiety. So try to see those risks as an opportunity for you to improve and become stronger, and be an incredible model in the process. Teaching kids that we can handle the hard stuff, we will get through it, instead of avoiding it is incredibly powerful “it may be hard but let’s try… I think we can do it!”.
Important Note: Exposure therapy is a specific type of therapy for anxiety disorders that involves challenging anxiety through exposure to that fear. For more severe or complex anxieties, consider contacting a mental health professional who has considerable experience in treating anxiety and using exposure therapy.
4. Dangers and Warnings and Worries, Oh My!: What are the ways that you may be subconsciously telling your child that their world is an unsafe place? A lot of us get into the habit “over-warning” our children when they are toddlers and struggle to break that habit. Perhaps you are using catastrophic or graphic language to warn your child of what could happen. We can think of this “What-if language” as anxieties’ favorite language. “What-if language” is anxieties’ way of expressing love and care for us, and often taking that love and care just a few steps (or leaps) too far.
Instead, Encourage Your Child’s Bravery and Independence: Taking calculated risks is part of being a child. Some risks are perfectly appropriate to your child’s developmental level. For example, a small child is learning how to run on her little feet. As much as we would love to strap a helmet and pads on her, we don’t. She must fall to learn how to walk. This process continues through many of our children’s developmental hurdles. Frightening them with too much “What-if language” or catastrophic warnings can sometimes teach them that we don’t trust them to get out there and figure it out on their own.
Raising a relatively calm child in a pretty anxious world is a tough task. Being mindful of our language and modeling is an important step in getting there. Anxiety is a vital part of who we are. As we tune in, we can learn the inner-work of not letting anxiety grow beyond our capacity to manage it. As you take on the task of learning how to manage and cope with your own anxiety, you are actually guiding your child in more ways than you know.