Parental Anxiety Hurts Children’s Self-Esteem
What we fear we create
Parental anxiety impacts children’s self-esteem and confidence in a detrimental manner. “What we resist persists”. What exactly does this adage mean? Well, the more we fear something, the more we want it to go away. At the same time, that which we fear seems to become ever more present in our lives, with more and more situations arising to confirm our distorted perceptions around that fear.
Another way of understanding this is through the well-known expression “the self-fulfilling prophecy”. It states that we humans tend to look for evidence that will confirm our beliefs. Rare is it, unless we are on the path of developing our consciousness, that we will look for evidence to disprove our beliefs or perceptions. Instead, we solidify and perpetuate those which we already hold. Ultimately, our reality is based on our beliefs.
Parental anxiety directly influences a child’s anxiety
And now to my next point and the topic of this post: how parental anxiety has a direct impact on a child’s self-esteem. If we adults suffer from anxiety, our parenting style will be significantly affected. Although there is no such thing as an anxiety gene or one single cause to explain anxiety in children, some children are born with particular vulnerabilities that predispose them to develop it. You might notice traits in your child such as sensitivity, fearfulness, and being high-strung. As children grow into adolescents, they might outgrow specific fears. However, their anxiety does not disappear; instead, it metamorphoses into overwhelming worry, always anticipating the worse case scenario. Anxiety expert Reid Wilson asserts that “untreated anxiety in childhood is one of the strongest predictors of later depression” (Wilson & Lyons, 2013, see Resource section at the end of this post).
If you have an anxious child, aside from his temperamental predispositions, there is also the likelihood that at least one of the parents is anxious, also born with the temperament I have just described above. Please do not be dismayed over this; however – it doesn’t mean your child is doomed because he also carries these vulnerabilities. There are ways you can intervene to prevent your child from developing anxiety.
It is a normal part of life to face challenges, which allow us to grow. Parents today appear more anxious than ever before, hovering over their kids and overprotecting them at an alarming rate. Even schools have followed suit by significantly restricting activities on the playground in the name of safety!
The creation of the anxious child
This kind of parenting has created an epidemic of entitled, insecure, fearful, and anxious children. These children are afraid of taking risks, trying new things, and of not being the best. They’re incapable of tolerating difficult emotions or rejection, constantly complain about things being unfair, are unable to take “no” for an answer, and inept at handling constructive criticism. Parents, in turn, are exhausted from catering to their children’s fears, which ironically, they themselves, have created or reinforced. It becomes an endless vicious cycle.
Parents’ inability to face their own emotions of fear or guilt around their children, tend to chase those strong feelings away by hovering over their children in so many different ways. And herein lies the problem. We can’t control the internal or external events that occur in our children’s lives. What we do have control over is how we respond to those events. Our reactions are an important factor in determining how our children will learn to cope with those events. Because our children look up to us for guidance, if we panic, they become scared. If we act as if they can’t handle a situation or emotion, they won’t think they can handle it either, and they, too, will panic. If we stay calm, we send our children the message that there is no need to worry and that we trust that they can handle it. It’s easier to coach them when both of us aren’t in a state of panic.
Until our children grow fully into who they are meant to be, we are their compasses, their radars, and their guides. They will internalize our reactions, and later in life, our voice, words, and responses become their inner voice, woven into who they are, who they become, and shaping them. It is a huge responsibility that we hold in our hands: We should never underestimate the power and influence we have over who our children grow up to be.
Anxious kids become anxious grown-ups
Too often, I see grown men and women in my office working so hard to quiet that anxious voice in their heads – a critical voice, a fearful voice, a guilt-ridden voice, that loudly echoes that of their own parents’ and causes them great suffering. They have to work hard in therapy to eliminate this voice, so they can finally stop carrying the shackles of their parents’ fears and live the lives that they were meant to live. Ah, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to bypass this step altogether and focus on prevention instead?
Fear is normal: embrace it
From the moment children are born, we learn that for them to grow we need to let go, little by little. With the process of letting go comes fear – because let’s face it danger and uncertainty are omnipresent, they’re a fact of life. Inevitably, we will be faced with fear on multiple occasions throughout our lifespan. But fear is a normal human emotion designed to protect us, to some degree; it often needs to be faced and conquered, not avoided. Fear that gets blown out of proportion, however, can become anxiety. As parents, we must learn to effectively manage and cope with our fears, so we can teach and model to our children how to do the same.
Children learn to cope with fear and anxiety through imitation and by experiencing life, not by avoiding it or being lectured about it. It is our responsibility as parents to get a handle on our anxiety, rather than being frozen by it. Sitting with the discomfort, and knowing that it will pass is a much more favourable response. Hovering over our children is a selfish action hidden under the guise that we do it to protect them and because we love them. In reality, we do it for ourselves. Meanwhile, our actions eat away at our children’s self-confidence and hinder their ability to become resilient.
Young children experience emotions intensely, and they are not yet equipped to manage or regulate them. Nonetheless, many adults have unrealistic expectations for young children in this regard. Emotional management is a long process that does not reach maturity until young adulthood!
Whether a child is feeling excitement, joy, fear, sadness, anger, frustration, or what have you, many parents don’t know how to cope with or navigate through the intensity of his/her emotions. The child’s emotional response triggers the parent’s anxiety, and the distress is perceived as being much worse than it really is. Parents end up trying to use any possible means to avoid the situation altogether, or to shut it down as soon as possible!. They believe that what they’re doing is not only easier, but best, for everyone.
Parents, heal thyself
It is our own fear or anxiety about our children’s intense emotions that we need to address and work through, not theirs to be corrected, dismissed, minimized or shut down. That which is really at play during those intense emotional moments is our sense of incompetence in knowing how to deal with these intense little beings; it speaks more of us than of them. We must remember that emotions, just like thoughts, are not “right” or “wrong,” they just are, and they will pass, just like waves.
Our minds, or “egos,” may sometimes try to convince us that something is wrong with our child or with us – and we find ourselves lost in the inner dialogue of finding blame or fault with what just is. But this mental path only leads to more fear and more darkness. And instead of shining light thereupon, we turn and run as fast as we can in an attempt to make the fear and anxiety go away. All the while, our children are watching us… and learning.
How anxiety is perpetuated
The perfect recipe for maintaining anxiety or fear comes through using avoidance, whether it’s avoidance of emotion, a state, a situation, a thing, thought, or person. Avoidance is very effective at reducing that gnawing feeling in our gut – for it works like this: we feel bad, we avoid that which makes us feel bad, and then we feel better. Pavlov called this process “positive reinforcement,” which is a form of conditioning. Thus anxiety is born and maintained. Which is also why we have an epidemic of anxious children, as well as an epidemic of anxious parents, also commonly referred to as “helicopter parents”.
Another culprit in maintaining anxiety is the use of reassurance. Anxious children and parents continuously seek reassurance. It works for them in the short-term to reduce anxiety, but once a new situation arises, they’re back at square one feeling terrible. Reassurance does not teach a child to cope with anxiety. It works just like avoidance: the child is anxious or scared, we reassure the child, the anxiety diminishes, and the child feels better. We just reinforced reassurance as a method for reducing anxiety. It has taught the child to depend on an external factor to self-soothe. Reassurance works best when it is generated from within, not from an external source. The key is to teach the child to reassure himself instead of always having to lean on the parent.
If we can’t overcome our anxiety or worries on our own, we need to seek professional help for ourselves before we invest in our child’s therapy. We cannot teach what we do not know. If our responses to stressors remain fear-driven, our coping and parenting skills will be maladapted. Moreover, whatever our child learns in therapy will collide with what we model, possibly even contradict what he learned, leaving our child even more confused and distressed.
Parental fear impacts children’s self-esteem
Living in fear will erode our children’s self-esteem, confidence, and resilience. They will not have the opportunities to discover their inner strength and their greatness if they keep avoiding, being fearful and not facing their fears head-on. They risk isolating themselves and not participating in activities because of their fear of being hurt, being humiliated, or being laughed at. And they will seek reassurance, approval, and possibly even become perfectionistic, which is often not a sign of hard work, instead, an indication that they fear to make a mistake or criticism. Furthermore, they won’t deal well with change, unpredictability, last minute plans, or the “unknown” in general.
ACTION STEP: If we, as parents, suffer from anxiety, we must understand that if we leave it untreated, it can significantly and gravely impact our children. We need to know when to let go and face our fears. We can’t fool our children, they see and feel our anxiety, even if we try to hide it. Our actions will betray us, for children are masters at detecting nonverbal cues. How we respond to situations that cause us fear, worry or anxiety teaches them how to react to situations that make them anxious or fearful as well. Coping is learned by imitation, by trial and error, and by the consequences that shape us. We can’t dismiss or minimize our influence. If your child already has anxiety, seek help and learn together, so that you can both conquer the cycle of fear.
“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.” —- Thich Nhat Hanh
“Life begins where fear ends.” —- Osho
“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” —- Robert Fulghum
In the list below, I’ve included resources for both parents and children who may suffer from anxiety. These books offer step-by-step strategies on how to overcome anxiety in yourself and your children.
- Don’t Panic (Reid Wilson)
- The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Georg H. Eifert & John P. Forsyth)
- The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Social Anxiety and Shyness: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Free Yourself from Fear and Reclaim Your Life (Jan E. Fleming & Nancy L. Kocovski)
- The Gifts of Imperfection (Brene Brown)
- Anxious kids anxious parents (Reid Wilson & Lynn Lyons)
- Playing with Anxiety (Reid Wilson & Lynn Lyons)
- The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens: CBT and ACT Skills to Help You Build Social Confidence (Jennifer Shannon and Christine Padesky)
- Parenting your Anxious Child with Mindfulness and Acceptance
- Mindfulness for teen anxiety
- The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens
- The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids
- What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety