How to avoid passing anxiety on to your kids

Many of us are anxious prior to parenthood. For those who aren’t, the experience of bringing tiny humans into the world and shaping them into full-blown, independent people will often tip the scale in that direction. Indeed, frayed nerves are a universal experience among parents. So, how do we avoid passing our anxiety to our children? By taking care of ourselves.

Each of us has a “window of tolerance,” a zone where emotional arousal (our feelings, responses and reactivity) can be felt and processed in a healthy way, allowing us to function and deal with anxiety effectively. Ideally, we’d operate from that space at all times, but unfortunately, life, with its flat tires, hangry kiddos, traffic and unexpected bills, is constantly working to push us outside that zone. We must intentionally engage in the work of returning to tolerance so we can engage with our children from a place of health and well-being.

That work begins by strengthening our relationship with ourselves, and growing awareness of our varied emotional states. Mindfulness is key.

Consistent check-ins with ourselves to assess our emotional states (without judgment), will go a long way in helping us anticipate when we might be skirting the edges of our window of tolerance. It can be helpful to track our emotions, too, to gain a better understanding of what situations or experiences may prove to be more personally triggering. Perhaps a certain time of day finds you more anxious, or a specific scenario. That is valuable information to have as we can use it to best care for ourselves in advance.

We can also mitigate some of the effects of anxiety in basic ways. Sleep is vital to well-being and strengthening our emotional heartiness. Similarly, healthy nutrition and adequate water intake, as well as exercise, can go a long way in reducing anxiety.

Please do not mistake those suggestions as an expectation to spend 10 hours a week in the gym and follow some restrictive diet, though those things can be good for some. We’re talking a 20-minute walk here and there. Grabbing a snack to keep ourselves fueled so our blood sugar doesn’t plummet. We can take small steps when learning to care for ourselves, and those small steps will take us far.

When wondering how to not pass our anxiety onto our kids, it is also important to note that perhaps, despite our best intentions, we still will. As parents we model what life looks like. Our children look to us to learn what it means to be. It is unavoidable that our characteristics will be handed down, for better or worse. Unfortunately, our tendency to skew a bit anxious may be passed down, but in that same vein, there’s also an opportunity for us to pass down the skills to deal with it in healthy, effective ways.

As parents, we naturally want the best for our kids. We feel an instinctive need to protect them. Of course, we wouldn’t want anxiety to be a part of our children’s experience. But, whether it’s an isolated experience or a more chronic struggle, anxiety is universal. If we focus too much on preventing certain feelings we rob our kids of the opportunity to grow their own emotional heartiness, to gain the skills required to take care of themselves. One day, they will be a grown adult with bills to pay and deadlines at work and a variety of anxiety-inducing stressors.

In caring for ourselves, doing the work of intentionally returning to our window of tolerance, we can model for them what it looks like to tackle anxiety in a positive way. As parents, it is not our duty to prevent unpleasant experiences, but to teach our children how to overcome.

Emily Henning is a therapist with Bainbridge Youth Services.