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Evidence-based Strategies To Cope With Parental Anxiety & Avoid Passing It On To Kids

Statistics | Impact on child | Risk factors | How to cope | How to avoid passing anxiety on to kids

What is parental anxiety?

Parental anxiety is the constant overly worried about everything that might go wrong with one’s child or family. Sleep deprivation, concerns about the health and well-being of the children, fears of not being an adequate parent, and the stress of balancing parenthood with a career can all contribute to parenting anxiety.

Most of us will experience anxiety at one point or another in life. Anxiety can be mild and transient—for example, the anxiety you might feel before starting a new job or meeting someone for the first time.

Before we became parents, most of us thought of parenting our child as a time of wonder, happiness, and satisfaction. But the fact is that parenthood is hard and anxiety-provoking by nature.

Having children means dealing with a lot of stressors – hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, and a multitude of responsibilities. It also means losing many of the freedoms you once had and the sense of being in control.

Anxiety is one of the most common psychiatric disorders in the United States​1​. About 34% of the general population will have a bout of anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Anxious people who were already struggling with anxiety may get even more anxious once they become parents.

If anxiety becomes chronic or anxious behaviors become debilitating in some way, occasional bouts of anxiety can become an anxiety disorder. 

anxious mom sits at desk

Parental anxiety statistics

Parental anxiety is prevalent as a large percentage of parents experience symptoms of anxiety within the first few months of becoming parents. Up to 35% of parents experience anxiety during pregnancy, 17% soon after giving birth, and 20% six weeks later​2​. But parental anxiety doesn’t necessarily end after the newborn period is over.

The pandemic has also added components of stress into the mix, including the fear of your family getting sick, the anxiety of having to balance work with quarantines, and concerns about your kids’ psychological well-being.  A study from 2020, found that over 44% of parents experienced clinical anxiety related to the stress of pandemic​3​.

Parental anxiety’s impact on the child

Anxiety tends to run in families. Children of anxious parents are 5-7 times more likely to develop anxiety disorders than those of non-anxious parents​4,5​.

Genes influence individual differences in anxiety levels in children​6​. Parenting behavior resulting from parental anxiety also contributes to the intergenerational transmission of anxiety​7​.

Therefore, anxiety in parents can have important implications and negative impacts on the child’s outcomes.

Risk factors

Usually, anxiety doesn’t have one main cause but is an interplay of several causes, including genetics, environmental stress, and human behavior.

A risk factor can increase the risk of anxiety disorder in individuals. Some known risk factors include​1​:

  • A family history of depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low parental warmth in childhood
  • Loss of a parent before age 18
  • Being female
  • Early adversity such as childhood sexual abuse or traumatic experiences by age 21
  • Growing up in a disturbed family environment
  • Having fewer years of education

How to cope with parental anxiety

The good news is that as awful as experiencing anxiety can be, there are effective evidence-based strategies for managing it. There are three types of coping strategies – task-oriented, emotion-oriented, and avoidance-oriented strategies.

Proactive problem solving

Proactively solving the issue that gives you anxiety is a task-oriented coping strategy, the most effective type of coping mechanism.

For instance, if you are concerned about your toddler falling down the stairs, a sturdy staircase safety gate can ensure that won’t happen.

Such task-oriented coping strategies are more likely to reduce anxiety and contribute to psychological wellbeing​8​.

Learn about child development

Individuals’ self-efficacy beliefs refer to the confidence they have in their abilities to accomplish their goals. A stronger belief in your parenting abilities can reduce anxiety​9​. The best way to feel confident and ease anxiety over not getting it all right as a new parent is to learn about child development.

There is so much information about parenting on the Internet that many new mothers feel overwhelmed and anxious. It is a challenge to wade through so many options and hope you have chosen the right one. 

But parenting need not be a matter of luck or guesswork. A lot of research has already been done on child development. To ease new parent anxiety, arm yourself with science-based parenting information.

Mindfulness

There is growing scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation can substantially reduce anxiety symptoms without adverse effects​10​.

In mindfulness meditation, one focuses on being open to the contents of one’s mind as they arise​11​. Being able to catch anxious thoughts will help parents relieve anxiety​12​. It’s important to be mindful of the present moment and remember that a worst-case scenario is just that — a worst-case scenario.

Exercise as self-care

It is important to take good care of ourselves, but for busy parents, it is a luxury. Self-care does not just happen in a spa with bubble baths. Exercising can boost your mood and energy, as well as reduce anxiety​12​. Take a walk, do yoga, or lift weights regularly to keep anxiety feelings at bay.

Both anaerobic and aerobic activity can induce anti-anxiety effects. Anaerobic exercises are high-intensity or strength-training activities such as weight lifting or yoga. Aerobic exercises increase breathing and heart rate. Running, walking, swimming, and cycling are all aerobic activities.

Seek constructive social support

Knowing you are not alone with the parenting challenges you face can make a world of difference. It’s a good idea to talk to other parents in your circle with whom you can vent. Confine in your partner regarding stressful issues.

Seeking social support is an emotion-oriented coping strategy. Studies show that emotional support can help parents reduce anxiety if they focus on planning and problem-solving (i.e. constructive), but not if they use it to dwell on worries for a long time​8​.

Breathe

Taking a deep breath can often provide immediate relief.

Slow, deep breathing involves respiratory activity that can calm the nervous system​13​. Take a deep, slow breath prior to entering a situation that you know may trigger deep fears.

Relaxation techniques

Regular practice of relaxation techniques such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) can significantly improve the quality of life for those who suffer from anxiety​14​. According to studies, people with anxiety can significantly better their sleep quality by using PMR for 30 minutes for 5 days​15​.

Write in journal

Writing in a journal may help reduce anxious emotions.

Emotional expression involves actively communicating stress-related emotional experiences. Expressive writing from a first-person perspective​16​ about upsetting events has been found to be associated with less anxiety and better well-being​17​.

Professional help

Professional help is required if your anxiety has reached a clinical level, i.e. your anxiety is impeding your daily functioning, causing depression, triggering suicidal thoughts, or leading you to hurt yourself or others. If any of these happen, it’s best to see a mental health professional for help.

Psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)​18​ , and Relaxation Therapy​19​ are some of the treatment options you can discuss with your doctor.

Medication

Some people also need medication to best manage their anxiety​20​, and there is no shame in using it if you need it.

How to avoid passing anxiety on to kids

If you are a parent who experiences parental anxiety, you might be concerned about the passing of this mental illness to your child. Just this thought alone can make you more anxious!

Genetics, environmental factors, and life stressors contribute to the emergence of anxious children. While some of those elements are out of your control, the way you parent your child can make significant differences.

Teach kids coping strategies

Teach your child coping strategies such as meditating, exercising, and taking deep breaths, and practice together. Your child will benefit from these calming mechanisms, too.

Avoid parental overprotection

Recent studies have found that there is a strong association between child anxiety and parental control. Children of parents who are overprotective or overcontrolling are more likely to develop anxiety disorder​21​.

Overprotection reduces children’s opportunities to acquire proper development skills, diminishing their sense of competence and resulting in higher levels of anxiety​22​.

By adopting a parenting style where you set high expectations, but aren’t controlling, you can avoid being a strict parent that causes anxiety in children​23​.

Promote self-efficacy in your child

Help your child improve their self-confidence by helping them change their self-talk. You can do that by praising, giving constructive feedback instead of criticism, and exposing them to tasks that they can master​24​.

Family therapy

The whole family can benefit from seeing a clinical psychologist or a family therapist if both parents and children are suffering from anxiety.

Final thoughts on parent anxiety

If parental anxiety has taken residence in your life, you don’t have to just accept it. There are things you can do to cope with it, and lessen the hold it has on your and your child’s life. Take action today to help yourself and your child.

 


References

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