Parenting the anxious child: are we fuelling the fear in our kids?

It seems that on every swing, in every class room and grasping on to every mothers leg, is an anxious child. Behind every anxious child, there is usually an anxious parent. I say this because it is the reason for most referrals to a counsellor or psychologist. It is the reason why I have to speak more with a parent when helping these children than I do with the child. I say this because my posts on anxiety and how to help children that are suffering are still the most searched for posts on my blog.

I am not about to go in to reasons why I think we have more anxious kids than ever before. The reasons are many and varied and probably require a whole other series of posts. I am not talking here about those kids who have been diagnosed with other disorders that means anxiety is a part of that disorder that requires specific treatment. In saying that however, I do think that many disorders are over diagnosed when what we are really looking at is simply anxiety. No it isn’t always simple. But that is what it is. Again that is another post!

So how does the parent feed this anxiety?

Two ways I believe.

The first is simply by having anxiety themselves.

Sometimes the parent is aware of this, sometimes they are not. I have heard on numerous occasions “Oh she probably gets it from me as I suffer from extreme anxiety”. So the best way to treat anxiety for your child is to get treatment for yourself.

  • Listen to how you talk around your child.
  • Are you giving them signals that the world is a scary place?
  • Are you challenging yourself to face fears and move out of your comfort zone?
  • Are you constantly focusing on the things that can go wrong no matter how likely or unlikely?
  • Are you prefacing every statement with a ‘be careful’, a ‘don’t do that because this could happen?’ or an ‘I’d better come with you, do it for you, help you?’

Easy things to do as we want to make sure our kids are ok. We all do it at times, but are you doing it so much that this is the only message your child is getting? I once counselled a child who was anxious about going on school camp. When I probed further I found out that mum had booked herself in to a motel next to camp and told her son that if anything goes wrong she is going to be right there over the road. She in fact was giving her son the message that it is so highly likely that something will go wrong that I have gone to the effort and expense of hiring a motel room just to hang out and wait for your distressed call.   I made mum cancel the motel,the child went along and he had a great time.

The second way parents fuel the fear is by being too accommodating. In their endeavours to help their child they invarioubly put them at greater risk of further entrenching the anxiety. We want to protect them. A natural result of the parent child relationship. We want to ensure they are safe and secure. By taking away their fears we believe we can help with their anxiety and reassure them that the world is ok. But in doing so we are often preventing them from tackling these fears, from taking on this anxiety and from ever hoping of recovering.

We often talk about treating anxiety with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In short it is about the way the words in our head effect our actions and behaviours. If we tell ourselves something is to be feared we are obviously going to display emotional and phsyical signs of fear. We will sweat, our heart rate will increase, we will feel sick in the stomach, feel dizzy and be unable to adequatley function or take part in an activity.

To combat this we look at the stepladder approach which you can read more about here. We slowly introduce activities to tell our brains that what we were initially thinking was actually untrue. That our fears were unfounded, and the likelihood of things going wrong is far less than previously thought.

To do so we need to expose our kids to the fear, not protect them from it.  Again another difficult thing to do as a parent when we want to keep them safe and happy.

Anxiety is maintained through avoidance. By exposing them gradually to a little at a time we allow them to get used to the idea. By exposing them to places or activities that cause anxiety we are helping to combat the fears.

Having a child with anxiety can be extremely stressful for both parent and child. But it is important to know that with a few changes in talk, behaviour, strategy and belief, then kids can get back to experiencing joy in the everyday.


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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Trish

    Thank you for sharing this Martine.
    I am a very anxious person though not outwardly.
    I try not to project my fears onto my children but I’m guilty of using the same things you mentioned.
    They are not anxious about many things …except snakes (my fault) and the bull charging them.
    I saw Penny (wildlife mum) had a great post on snakes so I’m going to use her ideas.

  2. Emily @ Have A Laugh On Me

    I couldn’t agree more and I’m sure I’m guilty of all of the above at times. However, I do have a friend with a very anxious girl because she tells her all the bad things and people in the world, and she’s just 5!! I’m trying to use some of the techniques to help with my son’s fear of dogs. 🙂

  3. Emily

    I was smugly thinking this wasn’t me until I read the ‘Be careful’ line. If you were going to make a pull-string doll of me and the things I say, that’d be one of them. Time to reflect. Thanks for the brain food.

  4. The good thing about having lots of children is that you seriously don’t have time to worry about all of them and they have to fend for themselves so much more… which I think will prove to be one of the most useful parenting gifts.

    I am not an anxious parent, being adventurous myself and having rather wild children… I tend to think things will turn out all right… they WILL get home before dark. I want them to be independent and bold… and am there for them when their adventures leave them overwhelmed.

    Enjoyed this post – it’s a HUGE topic, isn’t it?

  5. Aroha @ Colours of Sunset

    I must be subconsciously aware of this, because I really make an effort not to let my anxieties be projected onto my son in any way. When we fly, I make sure I’m not next to him so he cant’ see me freaking out. Of course this only works when hubby flies with us. I don’t want my child to have all the worries of an adult. Kids need to have fun and enjoy their childhood! In saying that, I do tell him to be careful a lot too.

  6. Maxabella

    I’m a non-anxious but too accommodating parent of an anxious child. I think some anxiousness is fuelled by the parent and some is just part of who the child is. Sometimes it takes a lot more than just a ‘few changes’. x

  7. Alicia - One Mother Hen

    I don’t have anxious kids, I don’t believe, but I do know of an anxious kid. Thank You for shedding some light into anxiousness in kids in a way that is easy to understand for someone standing on the outside. It is opened my eyes to a different perspective 🙂

  8. Twitchy

    I really enjoyed reading this post Martine. I would say I am anxious often but perhaps more so because of environmental and family factors, not as much from fear patterns, for example. Both my kids and I hate crowded noisy places because it is sensory assault. Parenting with ASD and ADHD in the family was never going to be simple! I do like to read about this topic though and especially where it is broken down and pointers given, such as here. Thank you.

  9. Amanda

    Great post Martine. My 9 year old son often fears things that seem quite safe. Your post explains how I may be adding to this and how I may be able to help him out.


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