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How do I prevent my partner from passing on his anxiety to our kids?

Our advice columnist shares tips on how to avoid passing on anxiety to kids as a parent who struggles with anxiety.

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Dear Is This Normal,

My spouse and his mother have severe anxiety. She passed her fears onto him by scaring him throughout his entire life. He is now doing the same to our kids. How do I stop it so they aren’t scared of everything? 

Signed,

Worried About Worrying

Dear Worried,

This is such a tough situation to be in! Obviously, you want to be mindful and respectful of your partner’s struggles with anxiety and support them as needed so they can manage it as best they can. But as a mother, I 100% understand your concerns, and I am 100% in agreement that this is an issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Most experts agree that anxiety is a combination of genetics and environmental factors, and if that’s the case, then your kiddos have it coming at them from every which way. I’m sure that your spouse very likely doesn’t even realize what they’re doing, or recognize that they’re continuing a cycle that needs to be broken. So let’s talk about how to avoid passing on anxiety to kids, and where to go from here.

The first step here is to have a heart-to-heart with your spouse to talk about some of the patterns and behaviors you’re seeing develop in their interactions with your kids. As I mentioned, I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t recognize the cycle they are perpetuating; in fact, there’s a chance they may not even understand how their anxiety manifested in childhood based on how their mother parented through her anxiety. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees, you know what I mean? If your spouse is currently seeing a therapist to help manage their anxiety, it might be worth having a group session as part of this discussion, too. HIGHLY recommend and encourage them to see a therapist if they aren’t—this is a heavy burden to bear without support.

Once you are both on the same page (and with the support of their therapist), it’s time to come up with a plan to help your spouse manage their anxiety. In order to stop your spouse from seeding their anxiety in your kids, you’ve got to help manage your spouse’s anxiety. This is their brain, their mental health—they can’t just turn it off in certain situations. So you’ve got to get at the root of their ongoing struggles. These tips will not only help de-escalate anxious situations for your spouse, but will also help stop the cycle from continuing with your kids.

It sounds like your spouse’s anxiety is rooted in fear, which I can imagine hinders a lot of your children’s experiences and developmental milestones. Work with your spouse on allowing your kids to experience things, even scary or hard things. If that means they take a backseat in some scenarios and participate as an observer, then so be it for the time being. Additionally, refraining from catastrophizing experiences or outcomes is important; so often anxiety can cause us to immediately imagine the worst case scenario, and when all is said and done and it didn’t end up being a dangerous disaster, we’re better able to understand that not everything our anxiety causes us to fear is worthy of our fear. Another layer of this has to do with managing reactions—we want to exhibit healthy reactions to situations that trigger our anxiety, rather than overreactions not based in reality. So instead of freaking out and screaming when your child stands up on a table, for example, the healthier reaction would be to calmly help them down and explain in a stern voice why we don’t do that (without invoking fear of injury or worse). 

Finally, I think it would be very helpful for your spouse to openly talk about their anxiety with their kids, in an age-appropriate way. Kids mirror what they see in their parents, so it makes sense that your kids would start to exhibit the same fears they see your partner struggling with. It’s helpful to explain to your kids that while this certain thing causes their parent to feel anxious or fearful, it doesn’t mean the thing itself is to be feared—it just means that some people react differently and that’s ok. If your kids are old enough to understand what stress and fear are, it’s worth folding them into the conversation. You’d be amazed by how seeing their kids conquer their fears gives them the strength and courage to do the same. 

This isn’t something that’s going to resolve overnight, Worried. You’re dealing with lifelong anxiety in your partner, and it takes time to unlearn certain behaviors and relearn healthier ones. But baby steps! Get the conversation ball rolling, and work as family to help your partner better manage their anxiety disorder. You will all be better off for it. 

No Worries,

Is This Normal

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