If you have an anxiety disorder, you might be handing it down to your kids without realizing it.Golda Ginsburg, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Johns Hopkins, explains why—and what you can do to prevent it.
How are parents creating anxiety in their children?
Research has shown that there is a trickle-down effect: Children of parents who have anxiety disorders are up to seven times more likely to develop anxiety themselves. There is good evidence to show that this is due to a combination of nature and nurture. In some families, there is a biological component. Other parents may be inadvertently causing anxiety in their kids through their own behaviors.
Can parents do anything to change this pattern?
We’re learning that they can. In a pilot study at Johns Hopkins of parents who have anxiety and their children, we provided interventions to some children, and none of those children developed anxiety. Among the children who didn’t receive intervention, 30 percent developed an anxiety disorder. Johns Hopkins is conducting a larger trial that will conclude in mid-2013, and we think we’ll see very similar findings.
What kinds of parental behaviors are responsible?
Parents who frequently highlight all the dangers and threats in the world can make their children fearful. They can model anxiety by saying things like, “Don’t touch that doorknob because it’s full of germs and you’ll get sick.” Parents who are overprotective can subtly communicate to their children that they don’t have good coping skills, which can cause anxiety.
Are there resources that can help?
Interventions focus on both parents and children. First, they help to identify the signs of anxiety, such as stomachaches and avoidance of certain situations. Then they open the door to developing coping skills. Parents might work on not modeling anxiety and not being overprotective. Kids can learn to change their thoughts, such as realizing nothing terrible will happen if they give a wrong answer when they’re called on in class. Early intervention is key to preventing a full-blown disorder. Professional guidance is a good idea if anxiety interferes with daily activities.