How Parents Teach Their Children to Be Anxious

Anxiety runs in families, partly because it has a genetic component. But genetics aren’t the whole story. Without realizing it, anxious parents can transmit anxiety to their children by modeling anxious behaviors and teaching their children to be fearful of the world around them.

Recently, a team of child psychologists from the Netherlands published a review looking at what the research can tell us about how parents “teach” anxiety to their children. The review focused on Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is marked by excessive worrying.

The researchers explored how both parents’ verbal and nonverbal behaviors can influence children. Nonverbal behaviors are especially important in infancy. The researchers pointed to several studies showing that when infants experience new situations, whether parents react to those situations with enthusiasm or apprehension can have a dramatic effect on how their children view those situations too.

Over the course of childhood, verbal information becomes increasingly important. When parents use words to draw their children’s attention to the threatening aspects of situations, children naturally view those situations as more threatening.

However, modeling anxious behavior nonverbally and voicing anxious thoughts verbally aren’t the only ways anxiety is transmitted from parents to children.

In the review, the researchers also cite a line of research showing that because anxious parents tend to be less tolerant of ambiguous situations, they may control their children’s environment more closely and be more protective as parents. In turn, this gives their children fewer opportunities to engage with ambiguous and anxiety-provoking situations, and gives their children the impression that these kinds of situations should be avoided.

Overall, the researchers say that parents with Generalized Anxiety Disorder may be more likely to “[convey] the message that the world is not safe, that uncertainty is intolerable, that strong emotions should be avoided, and that worry helps to cope with uncertainty.”

As children internalize this message, they become at higher risk for Generalized Anxiety Disorder themselves. So when they go on to become parents, perhaps it’s no surprise if they in turn have the same anxious parenting style, and their children develop anxiety…

Image: Flickr/Valentina Yacvhichurova