Frightening And Frightened Parents
Most people are aware that if children grow up in an environment in which they are constantly made to feel fearful (for example, due to parental abuse or the frequent witnessing of domestic violence) their emotional development is put at risk. However, many people are less aware that it is not just frightening parents who can psychologically damage their children, but also frightened parents. In other words, children’s emotional development may suffer if they are brought up by parents who are chronically anxious and fearful.
Transmission Of Fear And Anxiety From Parent To Child
In relation to this process of parental transmission of anxiety and fear onto their children, a study (Pereira et al., 2014) was conducted involving 80 children and their mothers and fathers.
In confirmation of the above, it was found that the fear/anxiety of both mothers and fathers significantly increased their children’s levels of anxiety. More specifically, it was found that::
Anxious Mothers And Overprotective Fathers
MATERNAL TRAIT ANXIETY and PATERNAL OVERPROTECTION increased their children’s anxiety. It was also found that these effects heightened their children’s anxious feelings independently of each other (i.e. just having an anxious mother or just having an overprotective father was enough to exacerbate children’s anxiety – it was not necessary for the child to have both types of a parent).
Prevention Of Transmission Of Anxiety
In order to prevent this transmission of anxiety down the generations, it is important not only to help the child manage his/her anxiety but also for the parents to manage their own anxiety. Relevant to this is a concept known as parent modeling.
Children Tend To Model Their Behavior On Their Parents’ Behavior
Parent modeling refers to a process whereby parents can change their children’s behavior. Essentially, and quite simply, this process involves children witnessing, and learning from, the behavior of their parents. The negative side of this, in relation to anxiety, is that children will tend to ‘learn’ to be anxious from their parents’ anxious behavior; in connection with this, it is important to remember that children are constantly absorbing and ‘picking up on’ the emotional signals a parent is giving out, even if it is not obvious that they are doing so and even if the signals being emitted from the parent are subtle such as slight changes in body language, intonation and/or facial expressions (this is particularly true of children who have been abused or neglected and, as a result, have become hypervigilant / constantly on ‘red alert.’)
But there is also a positive side. In relation to dealing with anxiety, if children regularly see their parents managing anxiety effectively, they are more likely to effectively manage their own. Indeed, children and parents can spend time working on managing their anxiety in positive ways together using techniques such as mindfulness, breathing exercises, and cognitive strategies such as learning to avoid catastrophizing and other thinking errors.
Pereira, A.I., Barros, L., Mendonça, D. et al. The Relationships Among Parental Anxiety, Parenting, and Children’s Anxiety: The Mediating Effects of Children’s Cognitive Vulnerabilities. J Child Fam Stud 23, 399–409 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-013-9767-5