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Parents who have specific fears or who are generally predisposed to anxiety often worry about passing their issues onto their children. I, for instance, become anxious at the mere thought of any type of needle, like the flu shot or a blood test. My anxiety over shots is almost as old as I am, and I was deeply concerned about my children picking up my fear.
My colleague, Dr. Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit, and I talked about our personal fears and how to avoid passing them on to our children. Whether your anxiety stems from swimming, spiders, or sports, here’s how to make sure your kids stay worry free.
Our Cheatsheet to Help Prevent Passing on Your Fears
1. If you have a persistent fear, allow other adults in your child’s life to model a lack of fear. For example, a source of anxiety for Alice is dogs and animals generally—partly in terms of being bitten, but also about being unable to escape certain experiences like visiting people with dogs and their furniture being covered in pet hair or being licked by a dog, or a cat rubbing up against her leg. Alice handles this by making a point to let other adults expose her toddler to patting and playing with dogs, and teaching her child the skills involved in safely approaching and being around dogs and other animals.
2. Pay attention to your language. Anxious parents can find themselves constantly reminding their child to “be careful.” This phrase is too non-specific and often too repetitive to be useful for your child’s development. Instead, help children learn to pay attention to signs of both safety and danger. For example:
- Safety sign: Your child may be timid about playing with children he doesn’t know, a position remarkably similar to how you felt as a child. You might say, “Did you notice that the other kids are smiling at you? I think they’re hoping you’ll come over and play with them.”
- Instead of always pointing out danger signs e.g., “Did you notice that log looks wobbly?” try pointing out safety signs like “Did you notice how sturdy this log looks? Let’s test it by standing on it before trying to walk across.”
Help your child adopt a problem-solving approach when she encounters anxiety-provoking situations. Here’s a good resource to kickstart your own ideas about phrases you can use as alternatives to “be careful” and encourage problem-solving without sacrificing risk-taking, which is how children explore and learn.
3. For little kids, you can also create your own bedtime stories about characters using strategies to cope in situations where they feel upset or scared. Keep these stories light and, to avoid overdoing it, also tell stories that relate to other life lessons, like how to be patient or caring. Ask the school or local librarian for book suggestions that address overcoming fears or illustrate compassion or patience.
4. Don’t make your grownup worries your child’s worries. Sometimes we think children are more mature and able to handle more problems or information than they actually can. Let’s say you have money difficulties. A child can’t help, and some may start to think that you will lose the house or get divorced. In other words, don’t burden children with adult concerns that they are unable to solve. If they arise, help your child understand that there are responsibilities and decisions adults take care of that they don’t need to worry about.
5. Verbalize strategies you use to make yourself less anxious. Hopefully your child will learn to do the same. For instance, “I feel nervous about the talk I have to give at work. I’m going to practice to be sure I know it.” Or, “When I go to the dentist, instead of being nervous about what he’s doing or the noisy equipment, I think about how shiny my teeth will look or how much better my mouth will feel when I leave.”
6. Help your child understand and label specific emotions. A child predisposed to anxiety may more easily recognize when she feels anxious than when she feels other emotions like anger, sadness, and guilt. Research shows that people who are able to granularly label their emotions tend to regulate them better, and that applies to children as well. Encourage your child to tell you what he’s feeling when he seems anxious or fearful and listen to what he says.
7. Tune out of the news. Understandably, you may have terrible anxiety about school shootings or child abduction. Your children may hear something from a friend, at school, or on the news. If your children ask questions, answer them as best you can, and remind them that you will do everything you can to keep them safe. Limit your and your young children’s exposure to media broadcasts; overexposure only intensifies fears.
8. Seek out evidence-based solutions. They’ll help you cope with your own fears and teach your children to do the same. For example, in terms of needle phobia, the Children’s Hospital of Minnesota developed and successfully implemented four strategies to reduce this anxiety and manage pain. The techniques proved successful and other children’s hospitals are adopting them. More generally, for your child’s routine health needs (like the dentist) visit health professionals who have a good bedside manner and make visits positive and affirming experiences.
9. While anxiety isn’t pleasant, the better you understand and manage your own anxiety, the better you’ll be able to help your children navigate whatever they find anxiety-provoking, whether they have average levels of anxiety or are predisposed to being fearful.
We would love to hear how you address your fears to prevent them from being absorbed by your children. Please tells us in the comment section.