Parenting an anxious young person – how we help – and how we hinder

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There is no doubt that biological factors play an important part in causing or contributing to anxiety in young people.  Some research has suggested there is a genetic component to anxiety (e.g. identical twins are more likely to have similar rates of anxiety than non-identical twins).  Other areas of research have identified physiological differences (for example heart rate reactivity, a number of brain structures/processes) between more and less anxious children.  There are other areas of research which have found differences in infant behavior between children who then grow up to be more or less anxious. 

All these fields of study put together indicate that at least some tendencies towards anxiety in humans is “hard wired” into some young people much more strongly than in the average young person.

However there are other research studies which show that aspects of a young person’s environment (in other words what happens to and around them) also influence their anxiety.  Studies have found factors such as early traumatic life experiences, friend and peer relationships, school life, sleep quality, nutritional intake, exercise and technology use – also contribute to how much anxiety children and young people experience.  

Not surprisingly therefore, most psychologists believe it is a combination of biological and environmental factors which cause anxiety in young people.

It’s with this background and context that I’d like to focus in this article on just one particular aspect of a young person’s environment which appears to influence anxiety –and that is parenting behaviours.   

I was prompted to write about this as I’ve recently read a 2014 paper by Kendall and colleagues which summarized many studies which have now examined the ways in which we as parents/caregivers respond, relate to, behave around and talk to children/young people potentially help – and potentially worsen – anxiety in young people.

This is a sensitive subject.  While it’s encouraging for parents/caregivers to know their behavior can potentially reduce their child’s anxiety, it’s hurtful and upsetting to think what they are doing may be inadvertently making things worse for children.   

However I believe when we know which parenting practices help and which hinder anxiety in young people, we can be reassured to know when we are doing as much as we can – or take steps to change some of what we do if needed. 

Below are the four parenting approaches or behaviours research suggest may be associated with anxiety in our young people.

1. Parental Control

The idea of “parental control” refers to how much parents/caregivers try to control what a child does, thinks, feels, says and the situations they experience.  Parental control can be measured by both laboratory studies (parents and children being observed together) and questionnaires about parenting (completed by both parents/caregivers and children/young people). 

Parents who score “high” on measures of parental control are more likely have children who are more anxious, and who become more anxious over time, than parents who score lower on this measure. 

This kind of parenting includes the following.

  • Over-protecting children (ie stopping them from experiencing situations which many adults believe are safe)

  • Being over-involved/intrusive in too many aspects of children’s lives (asking too many questions, being around all the time, insisting on monitoring everything the child/young person does)

  • Not allowing young people to choose or make enough decisions about their lives

  • Providing young people with too many instructions about what to do – particularly when these are about how to think and feel about situations or their life.

Although it will depend greatly on the age of the young person, here are some sentences parents with “high parental control” might often use:

You can’t do that, it’s too risky.
Tell me everything.
I will make these decisions.
You’re not old enough to do that.
I need to tell you exactly how to do that.
I need to be there to watch you.
I must be involved in that.
There’s a lot that could go wrong here, I should be involved.

Interestingly, parents/caregivers who are high on parental control are more likely to experience more anxiety themselves. 

In contrast, parents who score lower on parental control have children with lower levels of anxiety

This means they allow their children to have a range of experiences (even those with a small amount of manageable risk), allow their children to make age appropriate decisions, to allow them privacy in their experience of thoughts and emotions, allow them to have their own experiences and relationships without having to know and be involved in every aspect of them.    

Again, it will depend greatly on the age of the young person, but here are some sentences parents with lower parental control might use:

It’s up to you
You are old enough to decide
Would you like to choose
You can tell me about that when you are ready
How do you think you should manage that?
I can help you if you need it, but you can try first

2.       Warmth and acceptance towards young people

The term “parental warmth” refers to how much love, empathy, affection, positivity and acceptance parents/caregivers show towards their children/teens.  Again, parental warmth can be measured via observation and coding of actions between parents and children and it can also be measured by questionnaires.

Low levels of parental warmth has been found in most studies (but not all) to be associated with higher levels of anxiety in children.

Low levels of parental warmth might look like the following:

  • Rarely telling children they are loved,

  • Not showing any enjoyment about being with or around children,

  • Rarely using praise,

  • Staying silent or not responding when children or young people are hurt or upset. 

  • Using harsh criticism or punishment.

Low warmth parenting might include repeated use of sentences like:

Toughen up/stop crying
(No response) when a child has helped, tried hard or done something well
I don’t care
Too bad 
I’m not interested.
Silence (when child is upset)

Higher levels of parental warmth has been found (again, in most studies) to be associated with lower levels of anxiety in young people.  High levels of warmth from parents includes telling children/teens they are loved, showing them physical affection, showing empathy when they are hurt or experiencing negative emotion and avoiding harsh criticism or physical punishment.    They might use sentences such as:

I love you
I enjoy being with you
I appreciate you 
I know you are trying
I admire you
(Hugs/pats on the shoulder/open body language/eye contact etc)
I care about you
I’m sorry this is tough for you

3.       Accidental rewarding or reinforcing of young people’s anxious (or “avoiding”) behaviour

A third factor studies have found to be associated with anxiety in young people is how parents/caregivers respond when their children are feeling anxious or acting in an anxious way.   Studies have found that accidentally rewarding or reinforcing of anxious behaviour by parents/caregivers is associated with more anxiety in young people over time.

Here are some examples of rewarding/reinforcing anxious behavior:

  • Showing children/young people excessive and repeated sympathy or interest in their anxiety (asking about anxiety or difficult situations very frequently or in a very anxious manner)

  • Showing children/young people anxiety or distress when they tell them about worries or when they go through difficult situation (oh NO! that’s terrible!). 

  • Allowing (or encouraging) young people to avoid situations which make them anxious.

  • Not requiring children/young people to do anything which worries them

Accidentally rewarding or reinforcing anxious behavior might include sentences such as:

You feel anxious?/That happened?  That’s terrible/awful.
If you are worried, you shouldn’t ever do it.
Wait until you feel confident before you try things
I’ll help you get out of that/avoid that situation.
You don’t have to do anything that feels scary
We must fix this, it’s not okay that you feel anxious.
(When child/young person tells them about anxiety) Oh no, that’s terrible
(When child/young person tells them about difficult situations they feel anxious about) How awful

In contrast, parental reinforcement and encouragement of brave and confident behavior in children is associated with less anxiety in young people over time.

Parents/caregivers who reinforce/encourage confident behavior are caring towards their children when they are anxious, but act and speak calmly to them about their anxiety, and gently push their children/young people to do things (if they are important) which are initially scary or worrying for a young person.  They might say sentences such as:

You can do it
I’ll help you do this – bit at a time
I’m sorry you feel anxious, but I know this is safe
I will be there for you but this is an important step for you to take
I believe you can do this 
I’m sorry that happened.
Feeling really anxious is hard.  I do believe you can handle it.    
Feeling worried is tough.  It happens to lots of people.

4.       Repeatedly acting in anxious ways around young people

The fourth parenting behavior studies have found to be associated with anxiety is called “modelling behaviours”.  In other words, children and young people who act see their parents/caregivers repeatedly act or talk in highly anxious ways themselves are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety themselves.  

Young people who see parents/caregivers act in confident ways and managing worry and anxiety are less likely to be anxious

The relationship between parenting behaviours and anxiety in children is not simple

To summarise so far:  research tells us that there are four parenting behaviours associated with higher anxiety in children/young people - high parental control, low parental warmth, reinforcement/accidentally rewarding anxious behaviour and repeated modelling of anxious behavior. 

However, there are two important ideas to keep in mind about this research.

First – many of the studies (not all) referred to above are what are called “correlational” studies.  In other words particular parenting behaviours have been associated with high anxiety in children, but we don’t know for sure these behaviours cause anxiety. 

In these studies, we can’t be sure what comes first:  it’s quite possible that anxious children and teens might cause the parenting behaviours above – not the other way around. 

For example, children with a high level anxiety might have more frequent negative experiences with the world around them from a young age (eg they feel more upset, more often), which might then cause parents/caregivers to need exert more control more of their children’s experiences in order to reduce the child’s distress.   In other words it might be that higher child anxiety causes higher levels of parental control – not the other way around.

Another potential way this might work is the following:  children who are very highly anxious might cause their parents to show more concern about anxiety (because these parents know more about how difficult anxiety is) than parents without anxious children.  In other words, it might be that higher child anxiety causes higher level of parental reinforcement of anxiety – not the other way around.

As you can see, it is likely that anxious children/young people who are anxious prompt their parents/caregivers to act quite differently compared to parents of confident children/young people.  If this is the case, it might then perpetuate anxiety in children- prompting more changes in parents.

There is likely to be a circular loop – children influence parents, who influence children – and so on

I should just add at this point that not all of the research is correlational – some studies have looked at long term changes in children’s anxiety as a result of parents behavior – but the majority of the research is.

The second factor to consider is – as stated at the beginning – parental behaviours is only one factor which is linked with anxiety in children and young people.  The research about other factors is also strong.  We know that there are other - very important purely biological and other (non parenting) environmental causes of anxiety in young people.  For some young people it is likely that biological and non parental environmental factors is what causes most or all of their anxiety.

Where to from here?

For parents with anxious children and young people, I think it’s important to first acknowledge that children/young people’s anxiety is not our fault. 

For many children, their physiological make-up – and their environment - has made it highly likely they were going to experience anxiety regardless of what we as their parents do (or did). 

Nevertheless, as parents/caregivers we should take control of what we can.  This means being conscious of trying to act around and with our children and young people which gives them the best chance of helping them manage their anxiety over time. 

The research above tells us in part what to do.  Specifically we should:

1.Provide an age appropriate level of independence and autonomy: allow kids and teens to make decisions, have time by themselves/with peers, problem solve independently, have their own chores and manage life tasks (without us hovering or directing unnecessarily).

2.Show a high level of warmth and acceptance towards our young people:  tell them they are loved, show them we enjoy being with them, find ways to praise and recognize their skills and be physically warm and affectionate.

3.Help, encourage and support our children to face their fears (bit at a time, and gently): confidently assume they can do things, don’t allow them to avoid feared situations for the long term, don’t provide too many opportunities for them to opt out, avoid or stay away from (important) life or social situations.

4. Tell (and show) young people know that being anxious or worried is not terrible: tell them we believe they can cope with feeling worried and being in difficult situations, using a neutral or positive facial expression and confident tone of voice when talking about anxiety.

5.Get support for our own anxiety and stressors: actively work on our own anxieties and stressors so that children and young people can see us act in brave, confident and self-assured ways in a range of life situations. 

Finally – remembering the importance of looking after ourselves

If you have a child/young person who struggles with anxiety, it’s essential to be kind to yourself.

Parenting a child/young person with a tendency towards anxiety or an anxiety disorder is tough.  There is a significant amount of additional parental work involved – teaching, reassuring, coaching and encouraging – compared to support a non-anxious child.  At the very least this is wearying.  Much of the time it is also saddening, worrying and disappointing. 

This means it is important to find support, avoid criticizing yourself, notice the positive steps you are taking and do kind things for yourself.    

When we practice high levels of self care in this way, our children and young people will benefit too.

If you have a primary aged child who manages anxiety, they might find our "Calm Kids" online anxiety course helpful.  It includes animations, activity sheets and posters - and unlimited online access to a panel of child psychologists.   For more information, go to www.calmkidcentral.com

Parental Involvement: Contribution to Childhood Anxiety and Its Treatment

Wei, ChiayingKendall, Philip C.Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review; New York Vol. 17, Iss. 4,  (Dec 2014): 319-39.DOI:10.1007/s10567-014-0170-6