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8 Ways Parents Increase Children's Anxiety

Micromanagement, overprotection, inconsistency, and more.

Key points

  • Parents have blind spots for how they fuel anxiety in their kids.
  • Overprotective parenting can hinder a child's ability to cope with challenges.
  • Parents should create a safe space for their children to express their emotions.

Parents play a crucial role in shaping their children's emotional well-being, and unintentional actions or behaviors may contribute to the development of anxiety in children. Here are some ways in which parents might inadvertently contribute to anxiety in their children:

1. Overprotection. While it's natural for parents to want to keep their children safe, excessive protection can hinder a child's ability to cope with challenges. Overprotected children may develop anxiety when faced with unfamiliar or challenging situations. Parents, for example, who do not guide their children to work through academic or social challenges by instead overprotecting them will inhibit their children from tolerating anxiety when facing these stressors.

2. Modeling Anxiety. Children often learn by observing their parents. If parents display anxious behaviors or frequently express worry, children may internalize these attitudes and adopt anxious tendencies themselves. For example, one teen I work with shared how he learned the "What if thinking habit" from his parents.

3. Overly Critical Behavior. Constant criticism or high expectations can create an environment where children feel pressured to meet unrealistically high standards. Fear of disappointing parents or not living up to expectations can lead to anxiety. Related, a nine-year-old girl shared with me, "My dad only tells me what I do wrong in soccer."

4. Lack of Emotional Expression. If parents don't openly discuss emotions or provide a safe space for their children to express their feelings, it may lead to emotional suppression and anxiety. Children need to feel it's OK to share their emotions without judgment. As an example, one thirteen-year-old girl vented to me, "I try to tell my mom things, but I never know what she really thinks about what I tell her."

5. Inconsistent Parenting. Inconsistent rules and discipline can confuse children, leading to uncertainty and anxiety. Clear and consistent expectations provide a sense of security. Twelve-year-old Scott confided in me, "My dad tells me to 'stop sitting around and get active,' but he just lays around on the couch and looks at his phone."

6. Micromanaging. Constantly intervening in a child's activities and not allowing them to make decisions or experience natural consequences can contribute to anxiety. Children need opportunities to learn and develop autonomy. Fifteen-year-old Tom expressed frustration, "My mom is always up on my grille about me being lazy with my school work. It's like she gets off on constantly checking my school portal for my assignments."

7. Excessive Praise or Criticism. While positive reinforcement is important, excessively praising every action or offering unrealistic praise may create performance anxiety. On the other hand, constant criticism without acknowledgment of achievements can also contribute to anxiety.

8. Unrealistic Fear Instillation. Transmitting excessive fear or worry about general or specific events or situations may make children overly anxious. Parents need to provide a balanced perspective and help children understand and manage risks appropriately. Kim, age 14, shared, "My dad is always gloomy, like the world is going to end tomorrow. I hate his negativity; it messes with my vibe."

Helping Your Child Lower Anxeity

As I describe in my book, The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, helping your child learn how to calm down and problem-solve are the most important skills you can give them. Creating an open and supportive environment, along with seeking professional guidance when needed, can help mitigate these issues and support a child's emotional well-being.

Helping children manage anxiety is crucial for their overall well-being. Here are some tips below:

1. Have Open Communication. Create a safe and open environment for your child to express their feelings. Encourage them to talk about what is causing their anxiety without judgment. Listen actively and validate their emotions. Sometimes, just knowing that someone understands and cares can provide significant relief.

2. Establish Routine and Predictability. Children often find comfort in routines and predictability. Establishing a consistent daily routine can help reduce anxiety by providing a sense of stability and security. Create a visual schedule or chart to help your child understand and anticipate daily activities, making transitions smoother.

3. Teach Coping Strategies. Work together to develop coping mechanisms for stress. Deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, or simple relaxation exercises can be effective in managing anxiety. Encourage them to identify and verbalize their feelings. Teaching them to recognize and express their emotions can empower them to cope more effectively.

4. Promote Healthy Lifestyle Habits. Ensure your child gets enough sleep, eats a balanced diet, and engages in regular physical activity. These factors can significantly impact mood and stress levels. Limit exposure to screens, especially before bedtime, as excessive screen time can contribute to anxiety. Encourage activities that promote relaxation and creativity.

5. Lead by Example. Children often learn by observing the behavior of adults. Demonstrate healthy stress management strategies in your own life. Model positive problem-solving and resilience. Show them it's OK to face challenges, make mistakes, and learn from them.

Final Thoughts

Remember that every child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. If anxiety persists or significantly interferes with your child's daily life, consider seeking professional help from a mental health professional or counselor. They can provide tailored strategies and support to address your child's specific needs.

© Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. (All rights reserved).

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Bayer, J. K., Hiscock, H., Ukoumunne, O. C., Price, A., & Wake, M. (2008). Early childhood etiology of mental health problems: a longitudinal population-based study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(11), 1166-1174.

McLeod, B. D., Wood, J. J., & Weisz, J. R. (2007). Examining the association between parenting and childhood anxiety: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 27(2), 155-172.

Rapee, R. M. (2013). The preventative effects of a brief, early intervention for preschool-aged children at risk for internalizing: Follow-up into middle adolescence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(7), 780-788.

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