How Parents Can Avoid Rearing Anxious Kids in an Increasingly Anxious World
When becoming parents, we hope our kids will inherit the good qualities we have—our athleticism, mathematical prowess, and dimples—and not the lousy ones—our cowlick, clumsiness, and poor penmanship. But for those of us who've battled anxiety and depression, we pray our kids don't get saddled with these debilitating conditions that have caused us so much pain. The good news is moms and dads don't have to sit on the sidelines with fingers crossed, hoping their youngsters miraculously evolve into emotionally stable individuals. Instead, they can take pro-active steps to promote their emotional well-being from the time they're born.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the brain function that underlies anxiety and depression is inherited and the average age of onset for anxiety disorders is 11. The good news for parents, however, is that genetics alone don't determine whether a youngster will suffer from these conditions. The three E's—experiences, environment, and engagement—also play a huge determining role. So, with that in mind, here are four crucial ways to avoid raising an anxious child
1. Take Anger Out of Your Home
Looking at my lifetime of struggles with anxiety and depression, I often wonder how it all began. While genetics surely played a significant role, there's no doubt my anger-filled home was at the root of it. My dad was a workaholic and constantly stressed. My mom tiptoed around our house, trying to smooth things over so dad's life was tranquil and he wouldn't explode with rage. My three siblings and I learned to do the same, always walking on eggshells so as not to disturb our father. At an early age, we started to mask our emotions and suppress our thoughts. All four of us have battled anxiety and depression in varying degrees.
According to Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and parenting expert, a mom or dad's repeated outbursts of anger can lead to emotional problems in children. When a kid sees a parent raging out of control, she becomes frightened and feels like her world is unstable and perilous. The one place where she should feel safe—her home—becomes a source of discomfort. That's why it's crucial that parents with anger issues seek professional assistance before their kids become lifelong victims.
2. Create a “No Phone Zone”
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the suicide rate for teen girls 15-19 has doubled between 2007 and 2015. Anxiety and depression have been on the increase for all children since the 1950s with some dubbing our new millennium “The Age of Anxiety.” While society has changed in many profound ways (more divorces and single-parent homes, less job stability and family cohesion), social media seems to be a major culprit with kids today feeling uneasy, lonely, and afraid.
Obsessed with staying connected to technology, kids see a steady stream of unrealistic images: picture-perfect photo-shopped celebrities, posts about exotic vacations, romantic dates, and fancy restaurants, and videos of people performing extraordinary feats and gaining instant fame. Nobody on social media is ever scrubbing a toilet, studying for an exam, or re-heating leftovers. No wonder kids get anxious and depressed when constantly watching a distorted image of the world!
Parents can take charge of their children's mental and emotional well-being by eliminating or limiting social media. They can have kids put their cellphones in a basket at the door when they arrive home. They can make the dinner table a “no phone zone.” They can contact their teenagers' middle and high schools and urge them to restrict cell phone usage during the school day (some schools have a strict policy of keeping phones in the lockers while others let them get used throughout the day). They can talk about the pitfalls of social media (social isolation, online bullying, dehumanization). Most significantly, moms and dads can set a positive example by disconnecting from social media themselves: getting outside, engaging with friends and neighbors, and becoming a part of the community.
3. Let Your Child Make Mistakes and Have Her See You Make Mistakes
Growing up in my family, it was a shameful thing to make mistakes—to say the wrong thing, to get a low grade, to try a sport and not excel at it. It was definitely better not to do an activity at all than do it in a poor or mediocre way. If you did fail at something, it was not to be mentioned. Self-deprecating remarks (even humorous ones) were never allowed.
I remember one day as a kid talking to my mom about my dad never admitting to being wrong or making a mistake. In all seriousness, she replied, “Your father doesn't make mistakes—not ever” and that was the end of our conversation. But, it wasn't the end of me thinking I was a loser and an embarrassment to my parents. Fear of making mistakes created tremendous anxiety throughout my childhood, leading me to take less risks and take life way too seriously.
Julie Lythcott-Haims wroteabout helicopter parents and how they won't let their kids fail. While working as the Dean of Freshman at Stanford University, she saw moms and dads who wouldn't cut the umbilical cord. They'd show up on campus to challenge a teacher about their child's low grade. They'd contact professors about their child's assignments. They'd arrive at the dorms to request a roommate change for their child. While these parents sought to protect their kids, they were actually creating a lot of anxiety for them, making them feel incompetent and unable to handle life. How to Raise an Adult
With two teenage sons (both attending schools with high achieving peers), How to Raise an Adult was the ideal book for me to read. There's so much talk in our community about what kids need to do to get into the “right” college—great GPAs, super test scores, extracurricular activities, community service, letters of recommendation, stellar personal essays, and the list continues. This book quiets all that neurotic noise, getting parents like me to focus on the big picture—fostering youngsters who are happy, healthy, and excited about learning wherever and however that takes shape. There is no one “right” path for our kids; there are many. But none of them matters if our youngsters can't handle life. In her book, Julie Lythcott-Haims reminds us the best thing we can do sometimes as moms and dads is to simply step back.
Making Mistakes Is a Positive Experience for a Child
4. Deal With Your Own Anxiety
Nothing in life motivated me more to deal with my own anxiety and depression than having kids and not wanting to pass those conditions on to them. With an anxious parent like me, my sons were at high risk for becoming anxious themselves. That's why I decided to tackle my problems head-on—without the anti-depressants I'd taken for seven years. They had left me feeling fat, flat, and hopeless. Taking them had been a waste of time, doing nothing to fix my deep-seated problems and delaying the work I needed to do. But without the medicine to help me deal with my fear of social situations, how was I going to cope and lead a normal life as a wife and mom?
For the first time in decades, I stopped avoiding the social situations I dreaded. I started to attend events with large crowds (football games, concerts, and flea markets) and go to intimate gatherings (cocktail parties, play groups, and walking dates with friends). I opened up to others about my anxiety, keeping in mind the mantra: You're only as sick as your secrets. It was amazing how many people confessed to me their own struggles with anxiety and depression or those of a family member or close friend.
As my boys grew older, I gradually told them more about my struggles. I talked to them about the things I did to help me feel better: lots of exercise, meditation, time in nature, walks with our dog, long baths, a cup of tea, and supportive pals. They watched me conquer my fears by being social even though they knew I'd rather stay home. It wasn't easy for me—no remarkable recovery or miracle cure— but I persevered and that's the best lesson I could teach my sons.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 McKenna Meyers