The fear of passing anxiety down to your children
OPINION: When I became a parent, I was very aware of all I didn't know. I tried very hard not to make resolutions, because I knew I would probably break them.
But there was one thing I was absolutely determined not to do, and I stuck to that rule with all my will. I would not allow myself to be anxious about my children.
Mostly, it was a question of survival. I had suffered from anxiety my entire life. My list of fears was long and varied. But I couldn't allow myself to worry about my kids, because I knew if I did, those fears would take over entirely.
And there was another reason, too; a motivating force that propelled me to drive anxiety from my mind. I did not want my children to inherit my worries. I was determined to protect them from my own condition.
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Well, I failed. Though I did manage my anxieties - I got therapy, I read books, I sought support, and I refused to wrap my kids in cotton wool – I could not protect my kids from myself. Because – as I now know – passing on anxiety is far more complex than just hiding your own neuroses from your kids. My children inherited my genes as well as my parenting, and the anxiety in my genes is strong.
Recently, blogger and author Bunmi Lattan wrote on her Facebook page, "The worst part of having a tremendous amount of anxiety aren't the panic attacks or the occasional nights that feel like months, it's seeing glimmers of the same traits in your children."
As an anxious parent, this resonated painfully with me. Because I see my anxiety in two of my kids, expressed in different ways, but immensely recognisable to me. And I am racked with guilt, because I passed that anxiety on, no matter how desperately I wished not to.
I spend a lot of time dealing with my kids' anxieties. And when I comfort them, or help them work through their issues, I am hit with a double dose of pain. I experience the agony of seeing my beloved child suffer, and the pain of knowing it all comes from me.
There is, as Bunmi wrote, one positive to being the anxious parent of an anxious child: "The one advantage to having anxiety is that you know how to talk to people who have it. I know not to say, 'Oh just stop worrying' or 'You're being silly'. I know how hurtful it is for people to treat anxiety like a mind over matter weakness."
She went on to explain that she and her daughter "manage her (daughter's) mind together", which is exactly what I try to do with my kids. I have taught them deep breathing techniques, and how to crowd anxiety out of their minds by focussing on other thoughts. I have bought them special books in which to write down their worries, as articulated fears are much easier to handle. I have helped them to explore the worst case scenarios they dread, to show that even these situations can be managed and overcome.
Usually, I have the resources to help my children. Sadly, however, I sometimes fail in this too. Perhaps it's because my kids are older and I've been dealing with their anxieties for far longer. Perhaps it is simply because I am human, and fallible, despite my best intentions. Perhaps there is no excuse at all, and I am remiss in my duties as a mother.
But sometimes, all the empathy and understanding in the world isn't enough. Sometimes I get frustrated with my kids when they are highly anxious, just as I get frustrated with myself.
It is my greatest source of shame as a parent. There are occasions – rare, but they still occur – when one of my kids is fretting wildly over something so small and irrational that I lose my temper.
"For godsake!" I say. "This is ridiculous! Just stop!"
It is the wrong reaction, and afterwards I am racked with guilt. I know it is unhelpful to get angry in the face of anxiety. I know there are far better ways to respond. But irrational fear requires infinite amounts of patience, and sometimes, even this anxious mother's patience wears thin.
I try, and I will continue to try even harder. My children deserve infinite patience from me. Anyone with anxiety deserves infinite patience and care.
- Sydney Morning Herald