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Anxious parents create anxious children

Separation and divorce are very stressful times for the whole family creating anxiety, as stability has been shattered, creating fear of uncertainty for the future. The family unit has broken down, loss of time together, moving house, financial impacts or changing schools. Anxiety through this family crisis is normal and once the transition to the new way of life settles into a routine in time enables the family members to accept and adjust to the new changes.

So, what happens if parental conflict and anxiety continues?

Children that live in an environment where a parent is fraught with anxiety can develop familiar traits especially when genetics reinforces it. This is not to say that parents should pretend that they are OK when they are not, this can cause a child to not trust you emotionally as children can sense there is something wrong, says psychiatrist Dr Charles Sophy.[1]

Anxious parents can model inadequate coping mechanisms which can result in children being susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder. Clinical psychologist Dr John Mayer outlines that modelling and teaching are key to decreasing chances of children developing an anxiety disorder. If children see a parent modelling how they handle anxiety poorly, they could copy how their parent deals with the stresses of daily life. Teaching children how to cope with stressful situations and teaching them problem solving techniques gives them the skills to handle life’s challenges.[2]

According to the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention CDC, anxiety affects 9.4% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 5.8 million).[3] When children do not grow out of fears and worries typical of young children, they can develop anxiety disorders such as;

  • Separation Anxiety – Extreme state of distress of being left alone away from a parent which can make them clingy, unable to sleep, feign illness or refuse to go to school.[4]

  • Phobias - Having extreme fear of things such as dogs, going to the doctors, going on an escalator or fear of heights[5].

  • Social Anxiety - Being afraid where there are lots of people such as school, shopping centres or giving a speech in the classroom

  • General Anxiety - Worried about the future and that bad things are going to happen

  • Panic Disorder - Repeated episodes of sudden, unexpected, intense fear with symptoms like shallow breathing, heart pounding, shaking or feeling dizzy[6].

So, what causes anxiety disorders?

There are three factors that cause anxiety disorders in children;

  1. Biological – If a parent or close family member has anxiety disorder or genetics where certain brain chemicals aren’t working correctly.

  2. Family – Learned behaviour If a parent is generally fearful or anxious

  3. Environmental – Stressful events such as parental conflict, divorce, death of a family member, bullying or abuse[7]

What should a parent look out for?

  • Your child may show signs of having an anxiety disorder when they exhibit;

  • Loss of appetite

  • Headaches

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Stomach aches

  • Nightmares

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Irritable or angry

  • Negative thoughts

  • Going to the bathroom frequently

  • Fidgeting or feeling tense

  • Crying excessively

  • Being clingy

Divorce is highly disruptive to a child’s sense of stability, so it is important to assure them that you will make arrangements that creates structure, routine and consistency. If their routine is constantly changing due to arguments between the parents refusing to let the children go to the other parent or sending the children at the last minute, it makes the children feel very anxious and distraught.

Parents should provide calm support and minimise disruption to their routine to minimise anxiety.[8]

Separated parents, whether they are arguing or giving each other the silent treatment creates tension likened to walking in a minefield for the children anticipating an explosion. This makes children hypervigilant, on edge and unable to relax causing great anxiety.

Often arguments are about the children, making them feel caught in the middle of a war zone or their loyalty is tested as each parent may say things like;

“Don’t tell your mother, Sally was here” or “Was your father’s girlfriend there? he knows I don’t like her being there when you visit”. The child feels torn between not wanting to lie to their mother that the girlfriend was there and not wanting to get Dad into trouble.

It is so important for parents to not say or do things that will put the child in the middle of a coparenting dispute. Denigrating the other parent to the child or them witnessing you speaking disrespectfully to their other parent causes distress. Speak directly to the coparent, instead of using your child as your confidante or messenger.

So how can parents reduce their own anxiety?

It is important as a parent to manage your own stress so your child doesn’t feed off that nervous energy of anxiety.

Three key things you can do as a parent are;

  1. Know your triggers – keep a diary and note down when you get anxious reflecting on what caused it. For example, getting the kids ready for school and out the door on time. Create a strategy to reduce the chaos in the morning by getting the kids to get their school bags ready the night before, lay out the uniforms and shoes and prepare their lunchboxes.

  2. Practice Mindfulness – At the onset of anxiety, stop and do deep breathing for 30secs, retreat to a quiet place and count from 100 backwards, or go to the bedroom and use your senses to say out loud what you see in the room, what you hear such as birds chirping, and touch different objects which have different textures.

  3. Stress Tolerance – Self talk saying, “I know you are stressed about the job interview, but if it is meant to be it’s meant to be, if not then something else that is more suitable will come along”.

Once you manage your own stress you can help your children manage theirs too;

  1. Help them identify their triggers such as they get anxious if they don’t know who is picking them up after school or whether they will be going to after school care, so draw up a timetable so they know what the routine will be providing predictability and structure to put their mind at ease.[9]

  2. If they become anxious do mindfulness together by counting backwards from 100 or deep breathing or using all senses to refocus on their surroundings.

  3. If they are scared, practice stress tolerance by saying “I know you feel scared about meeting knew kids at the party, but what if they are really nice, maybe you can have a new friend come over for a playdate”

  4. Ensure you are calm at changeovers, your facial expression, demeanour and tone, as your child will sense your anxiety and become anxious themselves.

  5. Healthy eating, getting enough sleep and physical exercise based on a child’s age, helps them have a healthy lifestyle which can play a role in managing symptoms of anxiety.

  6. If techniques are not reducing your child’s anxiety you may want to consider professional support in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or Psychotherapy. Contact Amanda Dounis at the Positive Thinking Clinic or Heather Pinel at Parents beyond breakup who help adults and children with anxiety.

If parents manage their own stress and anxiety, create routine and consistency, they will minimise the anxiety for their children.

Author – Cheryl Duffy, Divorce Coach, Family Dispute Practitioner and Parenting Coordinator

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