“Sometimes anxiety can be hard to pinpoint as kids can manifest anxiety in different ways,” said Dr. Khadijah Booth Watkins, associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “This can be due to many factors such as the type of anxiety they’re experiencing, their age, or their language skills.”
While some kids experience physical symptoms like stomachaches, racing heartbeats and headaches, others exhibit emotional responses like increased tantrums or clinginess. Still, others become withdrawn and stop participating in activities or engaging with peers.
Even if you do not intend to create anxiety, some common behaviors and comments from parents can make kids feel anxious. Below, experts break down some parenting approaches that foster anxiety.
“Because of the uncomfortable sensation anxiety produces in the body, a child experiencing anxiety will most often develop avoidant behaviors,” said parenting educator Laura Linn Knight. “The child will avoid the thing that makes them uncomfortable, which may start off with a small avoidance but grow larger over time.”
For example, if your child is anxious about leaving you to go to school, that feeling might manifest as a fear of taking the bus.
“The child thinks that if mom or dad drives them to school, they will feel less anxious about leaving them, but quickly discovers that even though they were driven to school, the anxiety still remains,” she explained. “The child may then ask that mom or dad walk them to their classroom door, with the hopes that this will make them less anxious.”
This avoidance creates more anxiety and can wreak havoc on a child’s self-confidence.
“Parents unintentionally perpetuate the cycle of anxiety by helping a child to avoid the things they are afraid of,” Knight said. “Most parents don’t intentionally do this, but because anxiety often demands to be heard, and a child becomes very vocal or shuts down verbally and physically with the feeling of anxiety, a parent wants to avoid difficult behavior and thus helps avoid triggers.”
Instead, parents should focus on cultivating resilience and allowing their children to face their fears with the knowledge that they have a support system behind them.
“Changing behavior to actively participate in our children’s avoidance or reduction of their anxiety prevents them from developing the necessary healthy coping skills,” Booth Watkins said. “In this way, we are engaging in over-accommodation, thereby fueling the anxiety. The goal is not to take away all discomfort and distress, but to strike the balance of empathy, validation, and support with a little nudge and a lot of encouragement.”
Refusing To Cope With Your Own Anxiety
“We have to remember that our kids are quite attuned to what is going on with us as their caregivers,” Booth Watkins said. “They are both listening to our words and paying close attention to our body language. If we are struggling with anxiety ourselves, we have to be deliberate in managing our stress and distress, and model healthy coping skills and strategies which will be key in you helping your child manage their anxiety.”
Just as you need to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, you should address your own anxiety struggles to support your children through theirs.
“When our anxiety is not well-managed, and our kids have too much exposure to it, we can unintentionally teach them to be afraid or communicate that situations or scenarios are to be feared because we fear them,” Booth Watkins said.
Of course, perfection is not the goal, and parents should not try to suppress any anxious feelings or emotions. Instead, use these moments as opportunities to share what you’re going through in age-appropriate ways.
“It is OK to talk to your children about your anxiety, and if your child is experiencing anxiety, it may be helpful for them to know that they are not alone and that you understand what they are going through,” Booth Watkins said. “Most importantly, it lets them know that they do not have to suffer in silence and that you are here to help.”
When an anxiety-provoking situation arises around your family, try to practice self-regulation. For example, explain to your children that you’re taking a deep breath or doing a certain activity to manage and overcome your anxiety.
“Anxiety is a normal part of life,” said Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, a clinical psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts. “Everyone needs coping strategies for it. One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to help your child learn the unique toolkit of skills that helps them deal with anxiety.”
Shying Away From Conversations About Feelings
Talking about feelings can be uncomfortable, especially when difficult emotions arise, but it’s crucial for parents to encourage these conversations.
“Allow room for your child to feel worried, anxious or nervous,” recommended pediatric psychologist and parenting coach Ann-Louise Lockhart. “Since they may not be fully aware of what they feel or what it means, then name that feeling based on what you observe ― ‘It looks like you feel really uncomfortable with getting in the water’ or ‘You’re pacing back and forth because you feel scared about going inside the classroom’ or ‘You feel nervous about going to the party without me there.’”
The next step is to validate those emotions by saying something like, “I get it. That makes sense to me. Some people feel that way and need some time, and others jump right in and do it while scared.” Then, try to brainstorm a solution together. Make it clear that you’re there to support and encourage your child without simply solving the problem for them.
Alvin Thomas, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, also emphasized the importance of talking about your emotions as a parent. This approach prevents your children from making up anxiety-based stories to explain why the adults around them are behaving differently.
“It is OK, for instance, to say to your child that dad is feeling a little sad or a little frustrated,” he explained. “It expands the child’s emotional vocabulary, teaches them to talk through their emotions, and models for them how to do this. Then you could go on to give age-appropriate reasoning. Dad is feeling frustrated because dad was really hoping for something, but it did not happen.”
As a parent, you can then share some coping mechanisms you plan to use to deal with your difficult emotions ― whether it’s meditation and deep breathing or planning a fun activity to take your mind off things for a bit.
Being Overly Cautious
“A lot of times, we trigger anxiety in children when we are overly cautious,” said clinical psychologist and author Jenny Yip. “If we’re constantly telling them to be careful, we’re constantly warning them about danger.”
Saying things like, “be careful, you’re going to fall,” creates hesitancy in children, which can be helpful in small doses depending on the child, but it isn’t necessary to repeat all the time. Instead, pay attention to how often you give your children warnings and focus on helping them understand why something is dangerous.
“For example, don’t jump off the table because, No. 1, tables are not for jumping off of, and this is not a playground,” Yip explained. “No. 2, the floor is really hard. So if you injure yourself on the floor, we’re gonna have some difficulty here, and we might need to go to the ER.”
These moments of explanation can foster an open dialogue and make it clear they can also come to you with any concerns.
“Refrain from fear messages like, ‘Smoking will give you cancer, disfigure your face, and kill you!’ or ‘If you start smoking, I’ll ground you for life!’” said Kristene Geering, the director of education at Parent Lab. “Try educational, reasoning messages ― ‘Smoking has been linked to a lot of health issues. Your grandma died from cancer linked to smoking. I love you and want you to be healthy ― please don’t start smoking. I’m happy to talk more with you if you have questions.’”
Explaining your rationale to your children allows them to understand different issues and build the confidence to make their own intelligent judgments. Giving them the tools to arrive at solutions and face challenges on their own is more valuable than inundating them with a list of all the dangers in the world.
Praising results instead of effort
“A lot of my patients feel anxious about disappointing their parents if they are not the absolute best at just about everything,” Sinclair-McBride said. “I think we should definitely praise our kids and give them affirmation regarding the areas in which they shine, but I also think it’s important to praise effort and remind your child that they are good, loved, and important to you no matter what.”
Examine the expectations you place on your children and whether or not they’re realistic. Adjusting your perspective may require some personal soul-searching.
“The first place team and the last place team both have amazing, wonderful, lovable kids on them,” Sinclair-McBride said. “The high school senior that gets deferred from their top school still has a lot to be proud of and can still have an amazing college experience.”
Research has shown the benefits of focusing on effort rather than the outcome. This removes a lot of harmful pressure and helps kids know they’re good enough, even if they don’t excel at everything.
“Start praising the effort the child has put in ― ‘I saw you studying last night ― you are really working hard on that project’ or, ‘You’ve been practicing every single night no matter what!’” Geering advised. “I am also a fan of radical acceptance, of letting your child know that you love and accept them no matter what. You may not be happy about a particular behavior or decision at the moment, but you still love and accept them as a person. That increases that sense of safety, which can help reduce their anxiety.”
Asking Many Leading Questions
“Asking a lot of leading questions can make kids anxious,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Saying, ‘Are you nervous because none of your best friends will be at camp?’ kind of implies that they should be nervous.”
Resist the urge to word vomit all the things you think might make your child feel anxious, as this will likely exacerbate negative emotions or create new worries that didn’t even occur to them previously.
In her example, Sinclair-McBride suggested saying, “I know that you will be going to the first week of camp in July solo. What do you think you or I could do to make that more fun for you?”
“You could then help your child role-play introducing themselves to other campers or remind them about the cool activities they will do,” she added. “You might realize you are more anxious than your child! This approach allows you to be more solution-focused instead of feeding your child a feeling ― you’re feeling.”
Taking An Authoritarian Approach To Parenting
Child psychologists often point to four main parenting styles ― neglectful, authoritarian, authoritative and permissive ― that influence how children grow and interact.
“Authoritarian style parenting tends to cause anxiety,” Lockhart said. “This occurs when there are too many rigid rules in the home. Punishments like yelling, spanking and grounding are the go-to strategies to correct behavior, and there is little warmth and connection between the parent and the child.”
She noted that kids in homes with authoritarian parents often feel unsafe making mistakes because their caregivers overreact and overcorrect. Thus, there’s much anxiety about doing everything just right.
“Many kids who grow up in these homes may become perfectionistic to make their parents proud, to avoid punishment, and to establish their identity as ‘the good kid,’” Lockhart added.
Sending Mixed Messages
Parents convey ideas to their children through what they say and do in their presence. Try to avoid sending mixed messages, which can fuel a sense of uncertainty and anxiety.
“I get this a lot from parents who say to their children, ‘I want you to really enjoy taking this time being a kid,’” Yip explained. “Then they follow up by saying, ‘Have you studied for your SAT yet? That’s really important to do. You really need to get on studying with your SAT because the deadline is approaching, and if you don’t get on it, this is your last opportunity.’”
She urged parents to mean what they say and stay true to their intentions when delivering a message. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, with 24/7 academics or 24/7 enjoying being a kid.
“Say something like, ‘Your SATs are coming up, and that needs to be a priority. I want you to be able to find some way to balance your time and prioritize what is most important to focus your attention on,’” Yip suggested. “That message tells you that their time is valuable. There are important things on their priority list that require their attention. This empowers kids to take ownership of their own journey without feeling like I have to do X, Y, and Z because my parents want me to do X, Y, and Z.”