Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Did Making Your Anxious Parent Anxious Make You Anxious?

Some of us realized very young: I'm their trigger. I cause their pain..

Key points

  • Even before gaining a sense of self, many children of anxious parents start seeing themselves as vectors.
  • Blaming oneself for a parent's distress can have devastating effects on self-esteem.
  • Studies show that, via both behavior and biology, anxious parents often raise anxious children.

Did you make your parents anxious? Not that you intended to, but did you?

Did one or both of your parents monitor your every move? Did they hold you too little or too much, meet your gaze fearfully or not at all, sweat wild-eyed during social gatherings? Did they discuss stranglers and surgeries and bombs way more than other people's parents did?

And did you grow up thinking that being interrogated hourly, asked to calm them down, or tasked with adult errands "because Daddy cannot handle it" was love?

Maybe one or both of your parents suffered from anxiety already before you were born, and your arrival cranked it into overdrive. Or maybe they felt no anxiety before, but your birth was a sonic boom that blasted to bits everything they thought they knew.

We Learned by Watching

Babies believe themselves omnipotent. This is a normal, crucial phase in child development: Hyperabsorbent baby brains, built to learn quickly and lastingly during those first five years, surveil all scenery relentlessly for clues. What if that scenery includes their parents panicking?

Studies suggest that parental anxiety symptoms correlate significantly with symptoms of anxiety — and depression — in their offspring. Studies also suggest that panic disorder and agoraphobia in parents increase the risk for anxiety and depression in their children.

Did your parents (and mine) attempt to hide how scared they were of weight gain, say, or hospitals, or leaving home, or dropping us headfirst onto the floor? Did they cover their ears and freeze — because loud sounds derailed them — when we cried?

Did we watch them watching themselves in mirrors, distracting themselves with substances or solitary games, calling the doctor every time we coughed, banishing would-be playmates, and triple-checking our "number two"?

And that's even before they started really talking to us, telling us outright that life is cruel and cars are two-ton death machines.

It Soaked into Us

Even if they never said that, even if they resolutely sang to us or combed our hair, their stress still saturated us because kids learn by imitation, intuition, emulation, and empathy. They told us to be scared or showed us how, or both.

So we acquired anxiety: theirs, ours.

Theirs entered us through nature and/or nuture. Ours is landmined with extra artillery: guilt.

At what age did you realize: I make my parent(s) restless, helpless, weird, mad, sad? They're the first people I ever loved and yet I hurt them just by breathing. I am the catastrophe.

Even before gaining a sense of self, we saw ourselves as vectors. This is how we learned to hate and fear not only burglars and tuberculosis but ourselves. This is how our bodies and brains became our ever-present enemies.

And this is why we started punishing ourselves. This is why many of us became numb, silent, harmful, harmed — because we thought: I'm toxic, so why not?

Living With This Legacy

Now our first challenge is to understand that we were innocent. Our second is to understand that so were they. Maybe we riled or scared our parents, made them scream or flee. But we are no more evil for this, no more culpable, than the hailstorms and scorpions that scared them, too.

Circuitries of suffering that flashed from them to us and then back and forth for what felt like forever are hard to defuse. The self-loathing those circuitries fueled feels so legitimate. Some of us never felt anything else. Self-hatred never wants us to investigate its provenance and credibility. So our third challenge, before all else, is to simply see.

More from S. Rufus
More from Psychology Today
More from S. Rufus
More from Psychology Today