Parenting Styles and the Link to Anxiety in Children
Parenting Styles and the Link to Anxiety in Children – Let’s Focus on the Facts!
While it is normal for most parents to worry about their the health and safety of their child, sometimes parents can worry about their children to unnecessary measures. Social media, news, and the demands of our fast paced world means that at times, parents feel ill-equip and overwhelmed with their role as a parent, and often they feel they must also fulfil the role of being their child’s psychiatrist, paediatrician, GP, and teacher. The purpose of this article is to take the blame away from different parenting styles as the cause of anxiety in children – while some behaviours may not exactly help, we know parenting practices cannot cause child anxiety, as is most often the case in mental health, there is a strong genetic component to anxiety. In fact, the causes for anxiety are influenced by a number of different factors, BOTH genetic and environmental. This article will help to clarify the facts regarding the predominant influence genetics play in the development of anxiety in children, offering parents some reassurance that their parenting behaviours alone are not to blame. Various tips are also included on how parents can take a more pro-active (rather than re-active) approach towards parenting behaviours, particularly if their child presents with the symptoms of anxiety or other mental health issues are also
Why are we doing this article?
At assessment many parents are quick to blame themselves, claiming they are “too overprotective”. While being overprotective can help to prevent an anxious child from discovering that they can conquer their fear, when parents blame themselves, feeling like they have caused their child’s anxiety, it can significantly affect their mental health and confidence in parenting. Importantly, there is no manual to being a parent, and like all new skills, sometimes we need to “tweak things along the way”.
What role does genetics play in anxiety?
While there are various factors that have been shown to influence the development of anxiety disorders, (such as psychological vulnerability, genetic and biological predispositions, and exposure to various environmental surroundings), the research indicates that inherited genetic traits play a significant role. In fact, the results from a comprehensive meta-analysis study on anxiety disorders, found that genetic factors (over the remaining percentage towards individual environmental factors) contributed up to as high as 48% in panic disorders, 67% in Agoraphobia, 59% in Blood-Injection-Phobia, 51% in Social Anxiety Disorder, 32% for General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), 30% for Specific Phobias, and 20-30% for Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). [Hetman et al., 2001]
Similar research has also illustrated that heritable traits are linked to various temperaments like neuroticism, negative affectivity, and anxiety – with 30-50% of these accounting to the variances in General Anxiety Disorder (Brown et al., 1998, Clark et al., 1994).
Considering this research, it is important for parents to recognise that not one, but a combination of factors explain why one child may develop an anxiety disorder, and another doesn’t. Essentially, genetics can influence the onset of anxiety when combined with other environmental factors, however, genes are not considered to be the only causal factor – genes simply make an individual more susceptible to anxiety. If you apply the analogy of making a cake with the possible causes of anxiety – genes may be one of the key ingredients, but it is only when this ‘ingredient’ is paired with various others, that its manifestation can occur.
It is therefore important for parents to be aware of any environmental factors, including any anxiety provoking behaviours that they themselves may (unknowingly) be demonstrating, that could actually be contributing to and feeding into their child’s anxiety.
How can I help my child overcome their anxiety?
- Set a good example – Try to demonstrate an optimistic outlook on life, focusing on the “brighter side” of situations rather than just rattling off all the potential “what if” outcomes. Be cautious not to inflate your child’s anxiety by letting it be the focus of your interactions – the more you emphasise their anxiety as a problem, the more likely it will increase it further – not to mention make them feel as though they are not “normal” / “different”. It is also important that parents become aware of their own worries and how reactant they are stressful situations. The more confident parents appear in front of their children when faced with stressful or “scary” situations, the more likely it is that their child will follow in their footsteps, and vice versa – the more hesitant, frazzled or anxious parents appear in challenging situations, the more likelihood that this behaviour/ the more likely it is that their behaviour will rub off on their children.
- Encourage a healthy lifestyle – exemplify and implement (when you can) healthy lifestyle patters, focusing on wholesome nutrition and active living (avoiding excess sugar, caffeine and highly processed foods). Apart from the obvious health benefits of maintaining proper nutrition and physical activity, the two elements combined have been proven to play a fundamental role towards managing stress, increasing mood, and overall well being. Encourage your child to join extracurricular team sports or social groups as these may help to keep their minds busy and focus their attention towards other things besides their worries. Research has also shown that being involved in and feeling part of a group is effective at helping to increase young people’s sense of self- worth, accomplishment and overall life satisfaction.
- Talk it out – Regularly check in with your child, asking them what’s been going on in their life, making an effort to validate their feelings. Not only will this help to establish a strong, supportive relationship with them, but importantly, it will help to make them feel as though they can confide in you with whatever may be troubling them. It is also wise not to constantly ask what’s bothering them or show your level of worry over them – this may only lead them to withdrawing from you and burying their problems further inside themselves. Instead, let them come to you – but to do this, you must be (in their eyes) approachable and able to listen and give value to what they have to say.
- Rationalise, not reprimand! – If your child does open up and express their worries to you, try to rationalise the situation with them and come up with ideas together about how the situation can be tackled. Try not to take over the conversation by dismissing their feelings as unwarranted, or telling them how they should be feeling, or how they should respond to a certain situation – this is unhelpful and will only be-little them. / will only make them seem unimportant. Let their worries be heard and help them to come up with solutions to these, without doing all the problem solving work for them.
- Show you care – Make yourself available for your children, let them know that you will love and support them no matter what. Make time to spend with them and show them affection when you get the opportunity. Actions speak louder than words – giving your child a big hug after an emotional day may do more than any words could.
- Learn to relinquish some control- For parents to take a risk and allow their children some freedom to make some decisions on their own can be quite scary, and for some, not knowing exactly what their children are up to can in-fact be daunting. But in order for kids to learn and develop their own sense of self, form their own opinions, and fend for themselves as adults, they have to spread their own wings eventually – they can’t rely on you forever! Take a chance – remember if we contemplate all the potential risks in life too much, it leaves no room for pondering life’s opportunities.This is not a suggestion to throw all caution to the wind, and let them do whatever they want whenever they want! However, it is important to give them some control over their own life. Start with small steps! It could be as simple as letting your child play with their friends in the front yard (unsupervised), encouraging them to make their own school lunches, or allowing them to sleep over at their friend’s house.
Set some boundaries on what’s expected from them regarding their contribution to the family. This could be by establishing household rules, weekly chores, or specifying a particular day of the week for “family time”. Try not to “spoon feed” them too much with things they can do for themselves, as doing things for themselves will help give them some sense of independence.
While there is a fine line between how much controls is too much, remember there is no “one size fits all” approach to parenting – what works for one set of parents may not work at all for another.
Here is an insightful story on one overprotective mother’s journey to change www.realsimple.com/work-life/family/kids-parenting/overprotecitve-parents/page2
- Offer reassurance to keep going! – Emphasise that failure is okay and is inevitable in life, as we can’t always achieve what we want. More importantly let them know that it’s only when we give up on something, that failure is truly achieved. Try to reframe failing as being negative, by instead encouraging them to see it as a learning opportunity – it’s only through failed attempts we can learn from our mistakes to become a better person.
- Seek help – while it is important to seek help for the appropriate psychotherapeutic treatment if your child is experiencing anxiety, it is also important for parents to realise that they need to be look after their own mental health as well. In order for parents to do the best job they can, demonstrating how to effectively manage their own stress and emotions, is crucial.
Want to know more? Come along to our info night on Parenting a young child with Anxiety on May 26
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Our recommended therapist at Anxiety House
- Clinical Director of Anxiety House and OCD Clinic since 2010
- Ten years’ experience with clients with OCD and anxiety
- Clinical supervisor and STAP trained
- Worked in public and private sectors for many years
- Worked in acute inpatient and outpatients units
- Regular speaker on radio and social media
- Researcher and presenter at international conferences
Sophie Lucas is our Anxiety House blogger and is studying Bachelor of Communications at UQ. Sophie is passionate about anxiety recovery and loves to write about research and provide EDUCATION about anxiety. Sophie and Director Dr Emily O’Leary carefully think about each topic and try and provide the most up to date information. We have a number of scheduled blogs coming up, but we really want to hear your IDEAS! What topics would YOU like to know more about?
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