Fact: Anxiety runs in families.
If you're anxious, there's a greater chance your kids will be anxious, too.
But don't get anxious about having anxiety and giving it to your kids just yet. A new study suggests we might be able to do something about it.
This is good news — because anxiety sucks.
Wouldn't it be great to learn how to prevent our kids from dealing with something that we wish we didn't have to deal with? That's exactly what researchers wanted to find out when they conducted a study, which was recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Here's how they approached the study.
First, they look at the facts.
10% of kids in the U.S. meet the criteria necessary to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. That's a lot of kids. What can we do about that?
Well, they also noted that children of anxious parents have a greater risk of developing anxiety disorders. Which makes sense, right? Because, as they noted, "specific parenting practices, such as modeling of anxiety and overcontrol/overprotection, contribute to elevated anxiety." Basically, if we're anxious, we do stuff in our daily parenting that can make our kids anxious, too.
The researchers pointed out that other programs aimed at reducing anxiety in kids, like family-based treatments and cognitive behavioral strategies, showed some promise.
Next, they embarked on a yearlong study to determine whether they could help kids of anxious parents avoid ending up anxious themselves.
Researchers looked at 136 families with kids between the ages of 6 and 13. At least one of the biological parents in each family had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Their kids, however, were not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder nor did they meet any criteria to warrant a diagnosis.
The families were divided into two groups:
1. The "information-monitoring" group
These parents received a 36-page informational packet about anxiety disorders in addition to information on treatment for anxiety. Basically, they handed them a stack of papers, told them "good luck," and then left them to figure things out on their own.
2. The "intervention" group
Instead of going it alone, these families were asked to attend eight 60-minute sessions with a licensed therapist over the course of eight weeks — plus three optional monthly "booster" sessions.
The first two therapy sessions were for the parents only, and the remainder were for the entire family. In the sessions, therapists taught families how to recognize signs of anxiety, how to reduce it, better problem-solving and parenting techniques, and other skills.
The conclusion? In the two groups studied, those that received additional help fared much better after one year.
At the end of the one-year study period, the children were again evaluated for anxiety disorders. Although 19 kids in the "here's your information manual, good luck" group — just over 30% — developed an anxiety disorder, the other group saw a lot more success.
Only three kids in the hands-on, expert-led group — 5% of participants — developed an anxiety disorder. That's an impressive difference — nearly sevenfold!
Dr. Golda Ginsburg, a psychiatry professor and the lead researcher in the study, explained to NPR that an extremely important thing parents were taught is that kids need to face their fears, not avoid them.
We anxious parents might be inclined to steer our kids clear of situations that could make them anxious, but that's pretty much the opposite of what we should be doing because, as Ginsburg said, "they need to help them face their fears in order to reduce their anxiety."
However, the research here isn't finished.
An notable limitation to the study, according to the researchers, was that the families studied were volunteers, most of them white and consisting of two-parent "relatively high" income families. And then, of course, there's the question of, "How do we actually help American families in general?"
So there's work to do to make this research truly useful. But until then, those of us with anxiety can keep this info in mind and find ways to help ourselves so we can help our kids.
I'll leave you with this bit of advice, from the authors of the book "Anxious Kids Anxious Parents" that echoes what the researchers taught study participants and feels like a good place to start:
"Worry and anxiety are normal. They show up when you are doing something new or different or challenging. Your job is to step into the uncertainty of life, not away from it. Knowing how to respond to your worry — not how to eliminate it — is the key. Parents must focus on raising children that can tolerate uncertainty and problem solve so that kids feel equipped as they grow."