August 11th 2017
Parents who struggle with anxiety may end up with children who struggle with anxiety. There is a genetic component that is important to consider when helping your child with their anxiety. There is also a relationship component to consider and which can sometimes get overlooked.
Most of us have experienced emotional pain in our childhood. Perhaps we were bullied, or didn’t fit in, or our parents weren't there for us in the ways we needed. If we had someone to talk to about this pain, that connection may have helped lessen the pain and given us access to possible resolutions to the pain. If we didn’t have a consistent person who was interested and supportive with our emotional needs, then we had to learn ways to protect ourselves from the emotions of the unresolved pain. When we have to do this, insecurity forms.
All of us have some pockets of insecurity, even people with secure attachments. This is because there are times in everyone's lives that we don't have access to a trusted someone when we experience something too big to handle on our own (as in, no parent is perfect and no parent can be there for every single thing). When something happens in the present that triggers one of these insecure pockets from the past, our relationships with our children can get a little off track.
When we have children, it can be scary to think about them experiencing pain in the same ways we had to. Many parents, therefore, try to protect their children from experiencing pain (even when we don't notice that we are doing it). This might be especially true for a child with anxiety because these children often have more fears, more worries and a harder time coping with those fears and worries.
The relationship component which can contribute towards anxiety in children usually stems from the combination of the parents’ pockets of insecurity being triggered while their child is experiencing pain. This combination of factors can breed anxiety in both the parent and the child. When this happens, parents no longer have easy access to their innate wisdom, which can lead to parenting decisions that aren’t relaxed, confident and secure. As a result, the child does not have access to a trusted person who can help them make sense of their feelings.
So where and how can anxiety show up in the Circle of Security? Let's look at some specific places. If you notice that you see yourself or your child in one of these scenerios, take a deep breath. Of course you are not doing this on purpose! Again, no parent is perfect. Gaining awareness of a pocket of insecurity is an opportunity to deepen security between you and your child.
Limited Top Parenting
When a parent struggles with allowing their child to safely explore their world, the child will come to believe that the world is unsafe. Anxiety within this relationship could show up as clinginess, extreme shyness, panic when trying new things, worry about going to new places or nervousness at being left with a babysitter or extended family member.
Children need the opportunity to explore their environments. When parents interfere with safe exploration - by being too intrusive of the play, acting as if something is unsafe when it is actually safe, redirecting the child back to them, overwhelming the child with directions or taking over the play - children do not have enough time to figure out the environment and their place in it. There is no opportunity to get to the boundary of something and figure out a way to step back because the parent is too involved. Under these conditions, anxiety is reinforced in the child because the child is not trusted to try to figure out boundaries and solutions on their own.
Limited Bottom Parenting
When a parent struggles with allowing their child to access them for comfort, protection or emotional support, the child will come to believe that they can only rely on themselves. Anxiety might show up as perfectionism, intense anger, intense self-blame, an inability to express vulnerability or struggling to apologize and take responsibility for their part in a problem.
Children need parents who value the emotional connection and support that children need. As the authors of Raising A Secure Child point out, “a parent who is uncomfortable on the bottom of the Circle might focus on mainly on the child’s achievements, intelligence, or interest in activities (focusing on the top-half exploratory aspects of care taking and ignoring the emotional caregiving opportunities).” (pg 136)
Again, from Raising A Secure Child: “working hard at parenting from a place of constant anxiety about whether or not you’re doing it right is likely not going to help your child feel more secure. Secure parenting is actually about being relaxed - more or less - in our choices, in trusting that we are good enough, willing to believe that we’re within the comfort zone of what will be beneficial for our child.” (pg 53)
A parent who is focused on getting it “right” is a parent who is, unfortunately, focused on themselves rather than actually focused on what the child needs in that moment. Anxiety can develop in the child because the child is receiving lots and lots of attention but is never really being seen by the parent. This dissonance causes fear and worry in a child without access to someone with whom they can really connect and use to organize their big feelings.
Too Precious Parenting
Some parents can get preoccupied with their child’s “uniqueness” as a way to manage their own anxiety about if they are being a good parent. Rather than support their child and his or her interests and abilities, the parent becomes hyper-focused on the child’s talent in school or sports or hobby or something that sets their child apart from the rest. Without realizing it, parents put their child on a pedestal. Not only will the child struggle with this need to be special all the time, but the child will struggle with engaging in healthy peer relationships because other children have been unintentionally devalued. Anxiety can show up here because the child feels as if they need to always be special or unique in order to connect with the parent.
So what can we do as parents if we recognize ourselves contributing to our child’s anxiety?
Make sure you have access to people who can be Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind for you! Even though you are an adult, you are still need support that is available and committed to what is best for you. When your emotionally cup is full, then you will be able to offer more to your child. When you have plenty of experiences of someone being with you, it's much easier to be with your child.
Work at recognizing your own anxiety and pockets of insecurity. Talk to your supportive and healthy family and friends. Use all the resources available to you to gain awareness of the areas where you are unintentionally causing some issues in the relationship. Watch how other healthy people are doing it and give it a try with your child. And remember to cut yourself some slack - you would never have hurt the relationship intentionally!
If you tend to get too involved, take a few steps back and just watch and smile. If you tend to distract your child from their feelings, take a few steps toward them and open your arms. If you have too high of expectations, focus on “good enough” parenting. If you tend to believe your child is extra special, try to delight in your child without making it the “most” or “best” of everything.
All children, but especially anxious children, need parents who feel confident in their position to offer consistent structure with available support. Predictability combats anxiety. Feeling “felt” alleviates pressure. Comfort and protection decrease worry. “The research implies that helping parents regulate their own emotions - so that they come to their child with confidence and ease - is very important, it may even be central.” (Raising A Secure Child, pg 53)
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