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Have You Taught Your Kids to Worry?

Parents can create an anxious, worrying child quite easily.

Childhood is a difficult time. Growing up and adjusting to the demanding requirements that life throws at you is hard. New experiences need to be evaluated and either assimilated or rejected. Learning new life skills is essential.

But kids, don’t worry – most of you will have those champions of wisdom and good sense to guide you through the difficulties – your parents! Or will you? It is one thing for parents to have the best of intentions when mentoring their children, but often that goodwill can be dispensed in such a way as to foster worry and anxiety in the child. In this post, I’ll describe some of the situations in which both mothers and fathers can create an anxious, worrying child. You may be surprised to see how easily this can be done.

First, a bit about worrying in children. Studies suggest that up to one in four children develop anxious worrying to the point where it is distressing and disrupting for them, and it is characterized by its intensity and its uncontrollability. Young children’s worries are usually about things they have experienced, and they are less able to elaborate (or catastrophize) their worries into things beyond their experience. However, once they reach around 8 years of age, children start to catastrophize their worries and they also begin to develop worry-sustaining beliefs about worry – such as beginning to believe that worrying is a good thing to do to prevent bad things from happening.

Girls worry more than boys, and what children worry about will change with their age and related experiences. Very young children worry about animals, the dark, and imaginary creatures or monsters, while as they reach preadolescence children worry more about school and social interactions and social relationships. By the time that children reach the age of 12, they will already be worrying about emotional experiences and struggling with feelings such as shame or guilt. Quite simply, what children worry about will vary depending on their cognitive development, their emotional development and how they are required to interact with their world (e.g., the demands of school life).

Now, what makes a child an anxious worrier? Well, we know that anxiety tends to run in families, but as I’ve explained in a previous post, there is little evidence to suggest that worrying is largely inherited. This implies that a good deal of an anxious child’s worrying is determined by environmental factors, and one such factor is their interactions with their parents. Let’s divide this discussion into three parts – the mother’s contribution, the father’s contribution, and the influence of parenting style generally.

The saying ‘Anxious mothers make anxious children’ has more than just a sliver of truth about it. But how do anxious mothers transmit anxiety to their children? It is certainly not done deliberately, and most anxious mothers try to make a conscious effort to conceal their anxieties in front of their children. However, one way in which anxious mothers will convey their anxiety to a child is by being overinvolved in what their child is doing. For example, an anxious mother is more likely to be intrusive when their child is completing a task than a nonanxious mother. Such overinvolvement is likely to increase the child’s perception of threat, reduce the child’s perceived control over threat, increase avoidance of threat, and lead to worrying about potential threats. Very often, an anxious mother will become overinvolved with her child if she sees that the child might be distressed in a particular situation (e.g. while completing a task or interacting with another child), but overinvolvement is likely to generate a lack of confidence and feelings of inadequacy in the child – all further grist to the child’s worry mill.

There is much less research on the role the father plays in creating anxious children. Mothers have traditionally been considered more important influences on their children because they usually spend more time with their children than fathers. However, there is some evidence that overcontrolling and overinvolved fathers do create anxious children prone to excessive worrying – and the effect of an overcontrolling father is more likely to be seen during adolescence than early life.

Some accounts of anxiety development in children argue that mothers and fathers have quite different roles to play in rearing well-adjusted children. Children need to have a close, interpersonal relationship with their mother to insulate them against increasing levels of anxiety, while the father’s role is to guide the child supportively into the world. When children reach adolescence it is important for mothers to “let go” and for fathers to give their children more autonomy (by encouraging risk taking and independence) while staying close.

So far, I’ve talked mainly about the effect that overcontrolling and overinvolved parenting can have on a child’s tendency to worry. There are of course, many other aspects of parenting that can contribute to an anxious, worrying child. For example, children who experience rejecting, hostile or detached parents also show increased levels of anxiety and they are often overly self-critical and have poor self-esteem, and are prone to excessive worrying. Being reared in a single-parent home with one parent absent can also be a risk factor for childhood anxiety.

So what can we glean from this discussion if you are a parent wanting to endow your child with good mental health, acceptable levels of anxiety, and a tendency to worry only when it is a useful thing to do? Mothers should have a close, interpersonal relationship with their children, but not be ‘overinvolved’ in what the child is doing. Fathers need to be supportive and encouraging, while staying close. Good luck! – there is no manual yet!