Nearly one in three kids ages 13 to 18 now meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder (2018, NIH). 32% of teens report persistent feelings of sadness or loneliness (2018, CDC).
There are many factors that contribute to this escalation. There is screen addiction and the constant comparison to unrealistically “perfect” lives of peers on social media. There is bullying, school shootings, lack of sleep, the pressure to achieve, the media and political turmoil.
Many of these environmental factors are out of our control. As anxiety mounts in society, it mounts in individuals and families. It is cumulative, and passed down from parents to children, generation to generation. The attitude or action of one person in a family or group affects everyone else. If you are in a relationship, you know how that works! In couple therapy, we ask individuals to imagine what their own contribution to the conflict might be. It’s important to think about how one’s behavior is received by the other person. So, what might be the main reason we are seeing more anxiety in children? They are absorbing our distress!
Often, problems within the couple relationship impact the children. Not having the cognitive skills to communicate how they feel, kids can act out their anxiety in disturbing ways. If family anxiety gets high enough, the impact can be serious. The focus then becomes on the child. Ideally, we would address the anxiety we carry as adults before it impacts the child.
It’s important to understand the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear happens when the source of the dread is a threat that can be identified as something present or imminent. As Jeffrey Brantley, MD describes in Calming the Anxious Mind (2007), “When the feelings of dread are not so clearly associated with an identified danger or threat, they are called anxiety. It is felt deeply in the mind and body in the present moment. It seems to be in response to something threatening, but hazy, something vague or far away. You cannot identify the danger, but you feel the fear anyway.” Mild anxiety is normal. It can even enhance performance. It can also warn of a danger, or point toward useful action. The higher levels of anxiety, however, can interfere with daily life.
Following stressful environmental factors (such as those mentioned above) and biology, the most important influence on our ability to handle stressors without a moderate or high anxiety response is the family environment. It affects our self-perception, view of the world as threatening or supportive, level of self-confidence, and sense of control.
The good news is that there are successful ways to address anxiety before it is passed down to the kids. It takes practice and insight, and should usually be done with the help of a therapist.
- Recognize the pattern. Make a chart to keep track of what triggers your anxiety.
- What is the situation? Who was there? What were you doing?
- What was going through your mind? What images did you have with these thoughts?
- How were you feeling before this thought, how did you start feeling after the thoughts?
- Correct cognitive distortions. Once you recognize the pattern and what triggers fear, you can consider whether there are any cognitive distortions in your thinking. Most of us have a negative bias, where we give a lot more weight to the negative possibilities. Psychologist Aaron Beck, who developed the cognitive therapy concept in the 1960s, called this irrational thinking pattern, “automatic thoughts” because they are immediate and reactive in nature. The process requires examining the rationality and validity of the assumptions behind your thought patterns.
- Find the “Core Fear”. Todd Pressman describes how this can be done in his recent article, Deconstructing Anxiety, Counseling Today, Jan. 6, 2020. He believes that there is a deeper source or fundamental thought at the root of our anxiety. Once we have found the core fear, we must decipher our “chief defense” which keeps us from functioning fully and freely.
- Establish a mindfulness practice of letting go and bringing relaxation and non-judgmental attention to the present. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed mindfulness-based stress reduction, made it available to all of us through a daily practice. Try reading “Mindfulness for Beginners” or Calming You Anxious Mind, by Jeffrey Brantley and Jon Kabat-Zinn.
- Accept mild levels of anxiety as part of life. Uncertainty and discomfort are part of living. They are signs that we are moving forward, taking necessary risks in order to grow. Sometimes we perceive normal signals as unacceptable.
If you have an anxious child, the chances are that one of the parents is anxious. Taking these steps can break the cycle. Your children tend to assimilate your style. You can message to them when you’re nervous about something and model how you handle your distress. This way, they (and you) expect worry to show up and have the tools to use it constructively.