‘[We’ve] seen time and time again in studies of families that anxiety does run in families. Children of parents who have a diagnosed anxiety disorder can be as much as seven times more likely to develop an anxious disorder themselves.” (https://healthtalk.unchealthcare.org/does-anxiety-run-in-families/)
It is startling how rampant anxiety can be within the family unit. However, I believe that this puts the family in a unique position: while they may be struggling with anxiety as a family, they can learn to support each other as a unit. Anxious children often become anxious parents. We may not be able to break this cycle completely, but we can certainly equip future generations with a toolkit to help them mitigate its transmission.
Every generation treats mental illness differently. Anxiety is no different. In my parent’s day, anything “anxiety-inducing” was often reduced to “just nerves” and you were expected to push through. This is not the same in our household. With my girls, we try to figure out where the discomfort is and what could be prompting it. Part of the reason I am in tune with their anxiety is (being their mother and a life coach, notwithstanding), I am a fellow struggler.
“Anxiety” was not a word heard in my home when I was a child. It was hard for me to identify the “constant nervousness” I felt after I became a working Mom. It was not until I sought out my own life coach could I place a name on what I was feeling. So when I saw some of the same warning signs in my own daughter, I already knew what was happening.
In this post, we delve into some of the intricacies of family anxiety. “Family Anxiety” can be characterized in a variety of ways. In one instance, it can stem from a shared family trauma that then triggers anxious feelings on the part of family members. This does not mean that everyone in the family will experience it in the same way, but that there was a common precipitating event.
On the other hand, one or more family member’s anxiety may permeate into the rest of the family. The anxiety may originate from either a parent or child, but the repercussions reach other members as they attempt to cope. Whatever the method by which anxiety infiltrates the family circle, it is the family who can be instrumental in mitigating the situation.
“Is this my fault?”
This is a natural query of parents whose children are exhibiting anxious tendencies. Children learn by their parents modeling appropriate behaviors. If a mess is made, kids will watch as their parents clean it up. This is how they learn. Likewise, when an anxious parent is triggered, children will also learn to model this behavior, be it beneficial or not. For example, if a parent is overwhelmed, they may lash out at others, be short-tempered or irritable. When their kids find themselves in a similar situation and their anxiety is roused, they, too, may end up being unconsciously unpleasant to those around them.
The “blame game” sets parents into a spiral, from which nothing can be gained. Parents pass both genetics and learned behaviors to their kids – both good and bad. These are not deliberate choices just as eye and hair color are not. While there is no actual gene for anxiety, pre-dispositions may be passed on. Therefore, the key to this is both communication and education, and, if additional help is needed, seeking advice from a therapist or life coach who specializes in anxiety.
Have the Conversation(s):
Create a safe space for dialogue. This conversation will depend on the age of the children and how emotionally mature they are, but they need to know their home is a place of non-judgment, where they are free to express themselves and their fears.
How do you start this conversation? Honest acknowledgement. Parents need to let their children into their own struggles, especially where anxiety is concerned. There may be a fear that sharing in this manner will add to their kids’ anxiety, but you may be surprised. Letting kids (age-appropriately) into your anxiety lets them know it is ok to talk about it, and to be open about uncomfortable emotions. And most importantly, children will learn that they are not alone. Vulnerability is key to interconnectedness.
Awareness: Anxiety Triggers & Manifestations:
Once there is an openness within the household about both parental and child anxiety, take it further, bearing in mind to do so with an attitude of curiosity, and not judgment. Go through an “investigation” process with respect to the triggers and manifestations.
If you are a parent starting to see your child being “triggered”,explain to them what you are seeing and not what you think is happening in their minds. “I see you are sweating and your hands are shaking” vs. “I can see you are having an anxious moment.” The former is descriptive while the latter is assumptive. Know each other’s triggers. Have a safe word – for all of you which means that assistance is needed when it is voiced. Figure out how you will assist in those situations.
Anxiety may be triggered by different circumstances. A parent may be set off by crowded events, this may/not be the same for their kids – they may even enjoy throngs of people when attending concerts. The only way to figure out one’s triggers is to be aware of what happens in your body and mind when your anxiety rises to the surface.
Here, it often serves to work backwards. When you find yourself “out of sorts,” take note of what is happening within your body and mind. Is your head sweaty? Are you shaking? Is your heart racing? Are your thoughts on auto-repeat? Are these thoughts catastrophic about things that are likely not to occur? Both parents and kids need to do this. When anxiety comes on quickly and you are unaware of your slide into it, it is helpful for others to point it out. (Granted it may be the last thing you want to hear, but I urge you to stay open). Ask the anxious person what they are thinking and/or feeling and jot it down. This can be done for yourself as well as others in the family unit.
Once you have understood the bodily manifestations, start considering the precipitating factors – what were you doing just before this? What was the fear that was starting to present itself? These are the triggers. Ask yourself as well – were you hungry? Tired? Unwell? When our most basic needs are not met, anxiety will certainly take advantage of these situations. Again, take note of what you observe, look for patterns. Test out theories if you can.
Is there a common denominator to these episodes that you can identify? Compare notes with each other. Present ideas in a spirit of investigative education and not one of judgment. Be open and kind. Most importantly, do it together.
Preventative Measures: Meditation & Self-Care
In my course, “Anxiety Reimagined,” we explore triggers, bodily manifestations, and both mitigating and preventative measures. While it is helpful to be able to properly assist a family member during either a panic or anxiety attack, it is important to engage in behaviors that may lessen the chances of these occurring or the intensity and/or duration of them.
Anxiety removes us from the present by worrying either about the past or the future. Bringing yourself back to the present moment can help to deter this tendency. All too often we auto-pilot our day, thinking about other things than which we are actually doing. Mindfulness is the best method in order to be able to bring us back to the present moment. Cultivating mindfulness via meditation has even greater benefits. A daily meditative practice does not require one to sit for hours on end. It is not about the duration of the practice, but more so the consistency of doing it every day.
Thankfully, the trending of mindfulness has lent itself to numerous free and paid apps. Coming together as a family for a few minutes every day can be indispensable to curbing your anxious tendencies. Be aware, however, not all meditation is focused on breathing and breath work. You can use any sensation in or on your body as a point of focus. Meditation allows you to have an awareness of your body’s current state. The more you are able to consciously feel your body and sensation, the more you will be aware if anxiety is rearing its head.
When a body’s system is disrupted by a lack of sleep or food or safety, anxiety can take a foothold much more easily. As a result, self-care is of paramount importance. Simple things like making sure you have eaten enough, have gotten enough rest, and are not overwhelmed with tasks ensure that the body’s basic needs are being met. If you have a family member who is “overdoing it” and not caring for themselves, call them on it! Self-care is not also just our basic needs but our need for expression – do we have a hobby? A creative endeavor? Time alone? All of these can help to prevent the onset of an anxious moment. This, too, is self-care. And you cannot pour from an empty cup. You cannot be there to help others when you are not caring for yourself.
When Anxiety Hits:
Conversations have been had. You know each others’ triggers and manifestations. You have taken as many preventative measures as you can, but anxiety will still show itself.
How can parents and children support each other in the midst of either a panic attack or an anxiety attack? Panic attacks tend to come on quite suddenly so there may be little or no warning. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, tend to build in intensity over time and may last a while longer than panic attacks.
Know what TO say and what NOT to say. Neither parent nor child wants to hear “it is going to be OK” because at that moment, it is not. If one of your manifestations is shallow or labored breathing, you may be terrified. Remind each other that it will pass and that you will be there during it all. Ask them what they need – water, to sit down, cool air, etc. Be kind to them and assist them, when they are ready, with ways to move past it. If possible, try and shift their focus away from what is happening.
When the attack has passed, debrief about it. Ask them what was helpful – what worked and what didn’t. Learn and tweak accordingly.
Can kids actually help parents?
Gosh, yes. Empowering kids to help you, empowers them to help themselves. Depending on their ages, kids are often some of the most observant folks in the household. It is how they learn to walk, talk, and behave. Adults model and kids take it in, both good and bad! They know your tone, the cadence of your walk, and the look in your eye when they have pushed too far. I know mine will quickly pipe up with “Mommy, you are cranky.” This is what you need to hear. They may not know you are in the midst of an anxious moment. Shoot, you may not even know. But you may be aware of how it manifests – irritability, need for isolation, etc.
Whether or not kids may be able to sit and speak with a parent about what the parent is experiencing, kids are great at giving you feedback and pulling you back to the present moment. You just have to be open to this kind of communication and know that it is not an affront but rather something to help you. Be open and stay open. They may see something you have never noticed!
Anxiety can be alienating. It can isolate you from both friends and family. If the tendency for it to run among family members is so great, we need to be able to deal with it as a family. Working with a professional can assist with getting the conversation started and to keep it going. You may go from a family of fellow sufferers to one that perseveres together.