I have an anxiety disorder, so I worry a lot—but mostly I worry about passing my anxiety disorder to my children.
When my daughter was around two years of age, we were visiting relatives who lived in a high-rise apartment building. I've always been afraid of heights and have no desire to step out onto a balcony no matter how safe. The rational part of my brain reminded me that no one would get a building permit which included balconies prone to falls, so I never gave much thought to someone being in danger. I was aware my fear was irrational. But when my mother-in-law took my baby girl out onto the balcony, my heart rate increased rapidly, and I could hear the thumping. I felt faint and saw spots. I jumped up and demanded my husband grab her back inside.
Nearly a decade later, I feel the panic of that experience. I have to stop and take a few deep breaths. I know that there was no way she was in any danger: the wall was too high for her to climb, even if she had crawled up the chairs she still couldn't have reached. And there were four competent adults with her. But in the moment, my brain convinced me that in spite of all rational evidence, my child was in imminent danger of plummeting to the pavement below. I was certain of it. I flashed forward to the news stories which would include every expert testifying how this shouldn't have happened, but it did.
Like 40 million American adults, I have an anxiety disorder. For the most part, I'm able to manage my anxiety with medication combined with breathing exercises, prayer, and meditation. But my reactions are not always normal and healthy, so I worry about burdening my children with my anxiety. I also worry about whether they will develop an anxiety disorder because of me, the way other parents might worry about passing along medical issues such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
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According to Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist in Santa Monica, California, anxiety has its roots in both genetics and environment. "We can't control the genetics part, as there's a higher propensity for anxiety to be expressed in offspring just like any other condition," she says. My worry has a foundation. Luckily, it also has some practical solutions. Just as I take medication and meditate as treatment for my own anxiety, as a parent, I can utilize the following practices to avoid any fostering of anxiety in my children.
1. Allow my Children to Have Experiences
All parents worry about their children, but having an anxiety disorder means sometimes taking those worries to an irrational level. Allowing my children age-appropriate experiences helps to not only get them into situations where they can cultivate their own coping mechanisms, but lets me put into practice letting step-by-step. "Evaluate activities by developmental appropriateness," Dr. Mendez suggests. "Is it appropriate for a 3-year-old to go on a play date alone ? If you are fearful or unsure about the play date then ask yourself, how can you as a parent make that play date happen appropriately, safely, and comfortably?" By stepping back and having an objective eye, I'm able to manage some of my tendencies toward fear and panic.
2. Don't Catastrophize
When my child was on the balcony and my brain went straight to a tragic outcome, that was catastrophizing. Anxiety takes advantage of my vivid imagination sometimes, and it's not beneficial to myself or my kids. Similarly, if I'm communicating to my child that I will not allow her to cross a busy road alone to get to a friend's house, I don't need to scare her with extreme scenarios. Instead of telling her that I don't want to find her lying dead in the street, I should focus on her safety in smaller and more realistic terms. Imagining the best outcome rather than the worst one is one way to manage negative anticipations and control tendencies to catastrophize.
3. Practice Healthy Reactions
Before children can understand our words, they pick up on other cues. If my toddler is headed for a knife that I accidentally left within reach, I work hard to react without panic. Instead of waving my hands frantically at her, I move swiftly to take the knife and put it away properly. By first practicing these more reasonable reactions, I also help myself feel more calm in these moments.
4. Don't be a Helicopter
Helicopter parents are easy to mock. Many people wrongly attribute helicopter parenting to the idea that we think our children are better than everyone else's, when really it's borne from the worry that we will fail as parents and our child will suffer. But "helicopter parenting promotes anxiety, and interferes with children developing coping skills and problem-solving tools for themselves," Dr. Mendez says, so I have to gain awareness of over protecting and manage the impulse to hover.
5. Talk About It
As a person dealing with anxiety, I recognize the signs of it in some of my children. Talking about their concerns and working together with them helps them feel heard and understood. And while I wouldn't share my struggles with my 2-year-old, it's perfectly age-appropriate for me to let my 11-year-old know that I can empathize.
6. Keep the Pediatrician Informed
As if my often ridiculous questions aren't a giveaway, I'm honest with my children's pediatricians about my own anxiety disorder as well as any concerns I have for the emotional health of my children. Just like I would speak to him about a recurrent cough, I would bring up any worrisome emotional issues. This helps the doctor to treat the whole patient as well as to tailor his advice for me.
I have learned to be patient with myself as I navigate parenting. I will make mistakes, I will ask for forgiveness, and I will do my best to manage my own anxiety so I do not burden my children with it. And if any of my children develop an anxiety disorder, I will do the best I can to help them manage it.