Caring for Yourself, So Your Anxiety Doesn't Become Theirs

by Claudia S. Copeland, Ph.D.

I remember it well — the day I came within inches of a total nervous breakdown. It was a gloomy, stormy day. Stormy weather outside the house (no walking to the park today) and a stormy whirlwind of worries inside my head. My own anxiety would have been tough to deal with on any day, but combined with confinement in the house with two toddlers, it was a boiling volcano ready to erupt. The thing is — and doesn’t this always happen? — just when I really needed my kids to chill and give me some slack because I was so wound up, they only got worse! Way worse. The drama was multiplying in sync with my own anxiety, and it was threatening to explode.

Realizing the dangerous territory I was in, I took a deep breath and consciously turned away from my kids to do a 10-minute practice based on the Tibetan meditation deity White Tara; a practice to help focus and nurture the qualities of strong, calm motherhood and deep, healing compassion. When I purposefully disconnected from my toddlers to do my short meditation, I felt the flow of power that just 10 minutes can impart.

When I came back, I felt substantially less like a splintering boat being tossed about by the waves, and more like a strong ship, ready and able to take on the stormy seas of toddler drama. But surprisingly, when I went back to the kids, I found that there was no need — they seemed to have calmed down on their own. It’s as if my own newly obtained sense of serenity had traveled through the air to my little ones. Coincidence? Maybe. But it’s unlikely, I’d say, since this same pattern has happened again and again.

Anxious Parents, Anxious Children

The idea that we need to be relaxed for our children to be relaxed is not just an intuitive one. Numerous studies have shown a clear link between anxious parents and anxious children. If you suffer from anxiety, it is highly likely that your kids will suffer from anxiety, too. When it comes to psychological conditions running in families, though, it is difficult to determine whether the inheritance is due to nature or nurture. In the case of intergenerational anxiety, it has long been thought that anxiety is a hereditary trait — something that runs in families because it’s in their DNA.

This appears not to be the case, though: in 2015, a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry presented compelling evidence that anxiety is NOT transmitted as a genetic trait. The study, which looked at data from over 800 twins and their children, compared the children of different types of twins in order to tease out the influence of genetics vs. family environment on childhood anxiety.

Moving beyond simply looking at whether there was a link between anxious parents and anxious children, they compared anxiety in the children of identical vs. fraternal twins. Identical twins share 100% of their DNA (they are genetically identical), while fraternal twins share about 50% of their DNA, like any other brother/sister pair. (Unlike non-twin siblings, though, fraternal twins are the exact same age and therefore have environmental influences similar to those of identical twins.) If a trait is genetic, it is significantly more likely to be shared in identical than in fraternal twins.

Using this design, the researchers found no evidence for a significant link between genetics and the transmission of anxiety to children. So, rather than DNA, it appears to be something about the kids’ environment — such as parental modeling of anxiety to children — that links kids’ anxiety to their parents’ anxiety.

Treating Anxiety in Parents to Treat Anxiety in Kids

These results are good news. Although many parents — especially anxious ones! — might feel a stab of guilt at the thought that their kids’ anxiety is their fault, this feeling is unwarranted. In reality, the findings are empowering. If it is our actions, not our genetics, that are the main cause of intergenerational anxiety in kids, then we can break the cycle. We have the power. We just need to seize it, and that means doing something about our own anxiety.

If you are parenting while suffering from a mental health condition — parenting with anxiety disorder, parenting with anxiety and depression, or parenting with any other diagnosed condition — it is crucial that you seek professional therapy. One proven way to address both your child’s anxiety and your own is through family therapy, including short-term therapy. In fact, because of the phenomenon of intergenerational anxiety, it is recommended that treatment of childhood anxiety should include family treatment involving parents whenever a parent also suffers from anxiety.

If you are suffering from feelings of anxiety but are not in a position to seek professional care, there are other actions you can take to reduce stress and calm your mind that don’t cost a penny. One proven technique is meditation. Another is the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing — a nature-based mindfulness practice that has been shown to lower stress levels, improve measurable dimensions of psychological well-being and improve immune function.

Another is spending time with adult friends. While all of these practices are free of charge, they do require one investment: time. This is why many of us don’t do them — we feel it’s selfish to give up time needed for other things to take time for ourselves. It’s not selfish, though; it’s what we need to do to be good parents to our children.

Prioritizing Self-Care: A Parental Responsibility

As modern parents, we are faced with a mountain of obligations related to parenting. We need to make sure our kids eat a healthy diet and get outdoor time and exercise. We need to support development of their unique talents in areas like music, art and sports. And we need to encourage their engagement in positive activities like caring for a pet, while maintaining boundaries when it comes to unhealthy activities like too much screen time.

Being a parent means taking on the responsibility for our kids’ well-being, and that takes a lot of time. In the face of so many things to do, there often just isn’t enough time left for working on our own well-being. The equation changes, though, if we factor in the potential damage we cause to our children if we fail to care for ourselves. The evidence is clear: if we don’t take care of our own anxiety, we run the risk of transmitting that anxiety to our kids. So, taking care of ourselves is not just about us; it is a crucial component of responsible parenting, and a responsibility we have to our kids.

The Example You Set and the Fuel You Need

While my short White Tara meditation is my go-to intervention when things get rough, it’s not enough to do interventions only when things have reached a crisis point. It’s my responsibility to create a nurturing, low-anxiety family environment. For this, awareness of my own self-criticism is key, since that same overly critical voice, given free reign, will lash out at my kids.

It’s also important to prioritize taking time to be a multi-dimensional person. In my case, that means music, reading and conversations with friends and neighbors. Yes, I do love being my kids’ mom, but I am much more than that, and I cannot let the rest of my self wither. If I did, what would I be modeling for my kids? I’d be teaching them to neglect themselves — something I would never want to do!

Prioritizing self-care and self-growth provides the sort of modeling I do want for my kids, as well as the renewing fuel I need to care for them. I won’t pretend it’s easy, but it is crucial to good parenting. As the oft-quoted meme goes, "An empty lantern provides no light. Self-care is the fuel that allows it to shine vibrantly, lighting the way for others." Our kids need that light, so let’s fuel up!

Dr. Claudia S. Copeland holds a BA in psychology from the University of California at San Diego and a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology from Tulane University. A biomedical writer since 2008, she has interviewed countless medical experts in a broad range of subjects, from addiction treatment to infectious disease to mind-body medicine for wellness.

References:

1. Cross-generational influences on childhood anxiety disorders: pathways and mechanisms. Eli R. Lebowitz, James F. Leckman, Wendy K. Silverman, and Ruth Feldman. Journal of Neural Transmission (Vienna), 2016 September; 123(9): 1053–1067.
2. Evaluating the FRIENDS program: a cognitive-behavioral group treatment for anxious children and their parents. Alison L. Shortt, Paula M. Barrett, and Tara L. Fox Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 2001, Vol. 30, No. 4, 525–535.
3. A Healthy State of Mind. Claudia S. Copeland. Healthcare Journal of New Orleans, 2015 May-June, 28-32.
4. The Intergenerational Transmission of Anxiety: A Children-of-Twins Study
Thalia C. Eley, Tom A. McAdams , Fruhling V. Rijsdijk, Paul Lichtenstein, Jurgita Narusyte, David Reiss, Erica L. Spotts, Jody M. Ganiban, and Jenae M. Neiderhiser.
5. American Journal of Psychiatry 2015 Jul;172(7):630-7.

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