The Color of Anxiety

Mental health and wellness across cultures.

Control: The Red Flag of Family Anxiety

Control, the red flag of family anxiety

Is this normal parental behavior?

 

Look closely at this picture. What do you see? I assure you that there is no illusion contained in this picture. At first glance, you see a loving father assisting his son on a bicycle. However, if you look more closely, you will notice that the bicycle has training wheels. If you look even closer, you will notice that the father is holding on to the back of the child's seat. Ironically, this picture is the epitome of what takes place in families where anxiety is present in either the parent or the child. In fact, parental control is the essence of familial anxiety and the very behavior that represents a red flag for potential "anxiety seed planting." Research in this area supports the notion that anxiety in families is manifested through parental control.  

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Interestingly, an abundance of research in this area across racial, ethnic, and cultural groups supports this notion. If you recall from my previous posts' about the process of anxiety, thoughts of "uncontrollability and unpredictability" are the hallmark features of the anxiety process. In other words, "WHAT IF" this event takes place again? I will have to be prepared to cope." As a result, your body reacts as if you are in a dangerous situation because you tell it too.  Moreover, if a parent is prone to anxiety, we undoubtedly see this anxiety manifested in his or her family through "parental control." Along these lines, some of my work and the work of others describes the interaction between anxious parents or parents of anxious children as either a "dance," or a "push pull relationship." For instance, a parent gives a child a directive that the child views as "intrusive." The child naturally resists. The parent gives another directive, but the child continues to resist, hence the "push pull" nature of anxious family interactions.  Another example is if a parent is a chronic worrier. With this particular parent, this worry may take the form of worrying about the safety and security of their child. At face value, one may interpret this as simply being a responsible parent. However, anxious parents catastrophize events in their child's life by misinterpreting potential threat. For example, an anxious parent may not allow a child to engage in certain age-appropriate activities since they "might get hurt," (e.g., he can't play football he is too little and might get killed) may "have" to ensure that a child safely arrives at school, or not allow the child to sleepover at other children's homes (only if they are able to call repeatedly.) Again, family anxiety is a very sneaky phenomenon. What most "caring" parents fail to realize is that they are planting seeds of "uncontrollability and unpredictability" in their children by limiting age-appropriate autonomy. In other words, children initially learn to view the world, themselves, and others through their parents' eyes. If a parent has anxious cognitions, then many children begin to overestimate threat, just like their parents and begin to view objects or situations in a fearful manner. As previously noted, when my momma would say "boy put a coat on before you get pneumonia," she could have simply stated, "put a coat on since it's chilly out."  Big difference.

 

 

L. Kevin Chapman, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the CAFÉ Research Lab in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville. more...

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