I have an anxiety disorder and 24 years ago when I decided to have a child, I was most worried about how I could parent in a way that didn’t stack the “nurture” part of the equation against my child. Anxiety disorders are thought to only have about a 30% genetic or “nature” etiology, so I hoped to minimize the impact my anxiety had on my child. In my role at SAS, I speak with hundreds of parents from multiple countries every year. The number of parents reaching out with concerns about their child’s anxiety and how they can make things better through their parenting continues to increase, especially since the pandemic started.
Parents, children, and teens all have higher rates of anxiety than ever before. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, 31% of adults in the US have a diagnosable anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. In an article published in March 2022 in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers from the Health Resources and Services Administration found that anxiety and depression among children ages 3-17 have increased over the last five years.
Even before the pandemic, anxiety and depression were becoming more common among children and adolescents, increasing 27 percent and 24 percent respectively from 2016 to 2019. By 2020, 5.6 million kids (9.2%) had been diagnosed with anxiety problems and 2.4 million (4.0%) had been diagnosed with depression.
It is difficult to know the best way to parent a child with anxiety and that is doubly true if the parent also has anxiety.
Where can a parent go to get good, reliable, actionable strategies to parent a child with anxiety? Child Mind Institute is one of my favorite resources and they have an entire section of their website devoted to this topic. Here are some of my top take-aways.
-Manage your stress with mindfulness.
-Learn your triggers and set boundaries about when and how you will engage in those things.
-Model stress tolerance and try to maintain a calm, neutral demeanor in front of your child.
-Explain your anxiety so you give your kids permission to feel stress and know they can also manage it.
-Know when to disengage, for example, if you are anxious when dropping your child at school, ask your spouse or a trusted friend to do it until you can better manage.
-Don’t try to eliminate anxiety. Help them understand the difference between helpful and unhelpful anxiety. Grace Berman, LCSW, with Child Mind Institute:
“I’ll often use the metaphor of an overactive fire alarm — sometimes they go off when there actually isn’t a fire,” she explains. “Treatment is about recalibrating our anxiety alarms so that we’re listening to our anxiety in dangerous situations, and also learning when anxiety isn’t helpful and ways to manage this.”
-Don’t avoid things just because they make your child anxious. We want our kids to learn that they can handle the situation even if it feels scary.
-Respect their feelings, but don’t empower them. For example, Berman suggests saying: “I know you feel scared to go to the doctor, AND I know that you can handle this.”
-Try to keep the anticipatory period short. If your child is stressed about an event, you don’t want to give them too much time to ruminate, but you also don’t want to spring it on them.
-Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety. Let your kids see you managing it and getting through it.