The parents of children with anxiety disorders may worry that the genes that have passed on are the cause of their children’s anxiety, and in some instances, their worries may be correct. Anxiety disorders may result in part from genetic makeup, but other factors may also play a role in the development of such disorders in children. In some cases, parental worry itself may be responsible for making children anxious.
In a study presented at the 2007 annual conference of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, Dr. Kelly Drake explored the influence of anxiety sensitivity (AS), which refers to the belief that the internal symptoms of anxiety can have adverse physical, social, and mental outcomes. Those who fear the symptoms of anxiety might, for instance, worry that a rising heart-rate, quite normal for someone under stress, signals an imminent heart-attack. The study of 157 families indicated that both parental AS and overprotection increased AS in children. These results suggest that parents can instill in their childrenmaladaptive methods for coping with stress.
Parents who constantly fret over their children, over-reacting to scraped knees and reports of discomfort, can teach their children a pattern of reacting to situations with fear. In addition to this overt message, children can learn from the unspoken example of their parents’ behavior. Even if a father tells his son not to worry about anxiety, he still sends the wrong message if he avoids going to work because of the stress he experiences there.
Children learn by watching their parents, and parents need to be aware of this to ensure that their children do not learn unhealthy ways of coping with stress from them, such as avoidance of unpleasant situations and self-medication with alcohol or other harmful substances. Numerous factors can lead to anxiety disorders, both genetic and environmental, but parents can help improve their children’s chances of living without anxiety by understanding that, whether they intend to or not, they send important messaged to their children about how to deal with stress.