Okay, I am kidding! Mostly. First of all, the question I used as the title is wrong. It is way too simple. It implies there is a single cause and the truth is that there are multiple factors at play. A better question would be, “Am I one of many reasons my child is anxious?” The answer to that is, “Probably, but it might not be what you expect.”
Apples fall next to the tree
Let’s start with a general overview of what the research says so far about us parents. First of all, anxiety runs in families. That means DNA is a factor. If there are anxious parent(s) and grandparent(s) then there will probably be anxious kids. Up to 60% of kids with anxious immediate family members will also have anxiety*. So is that your fault? Well, yeah, sort of, but not like if you wake them up in the middle of the night wearing a hockey mask. We all pass along stuff, good and bad. Hey, I am the ADHD carrier for my kids. (My wife is soooo lucky!) Some kids come “out of the oven” anxiety prone. It is the hand they get dealt.
It is the stuff’s fault!
Second, stuff happens. By stuff, I mean bad stuff. The news is pretty scary. Other kids can be scary. The advertisements on television before Halloween are ridiculous! (These advertisers can’t possibly have small children.) We are wired to look out for danger so it is reasonable that kids will find stuff to be scared about. School is a huge trigger for the onset of anxiety symptoms. What are you going to do? Things go wrong. Even if you try to minimize all this stuff you can’t control everything. As it turns out, a key principle for overcoming anxiety is that learning how to tolerate it. This is unquestionably better than avoiding it.
Okay, maybe this shoe fits
The control thing brings me to the third factor. Trying to control everything as a parent is more likely to cause anxiety then the stuff our kids are exposed to in life. Parental over-control, over-protection and over-involvement are associated with higher anxiety in kids*. That might be your fault. (But only if you do this.) Now it isn’t perfectly clear exactly what all the “overs” mean. It can be difficult to know the line between what is appropriate care and oversight versus what can cause anxiety. If you want to know, ask a sample of people who know you well. Don’t be defensive, ask for honest feedback. If you get feedback that you might be doing this then you can work on it. It is probably because you are anxious. Just like your child, you need to disobey your own anxiety by letting your child live with some risk and uncertainty. We all know that anxiety’s nasty trick is to perpetuate itself if you do what it commands.
Now all you live-and-let-live parents don’t pat yourself on the back. Strong under-control may be perceived by your child as withdrawal and lack of support*. That can cause anxiety because your child may not feel safe or clear about how to navigate life. Similarly, detachment accompanied with high levels of criticism are associated with anxiety. To that I say, “Quit being a jerk.” Listen to our grandmothers, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
There are some other things that might be at play as well. Kids model what they see. They will learn from watching us. If you behave anxiously then…. Also, if the family is full of conflict that can contribute*.
Put a sock in it
The sock goes into that shaming guilt-producing voice in your head. There are so many things that can be factors in causing anxiety in your child. The parenting styles I mentioned have to be very strong traits, not occasional things. The effect of parenting behaviors upon child anxiety are not that cut and dried. We probably don’t have as much influence over our kids as we think. One review of the literature found the variance between parenting and childhood anxiety to be less the 4%**. There is no way to know who is at fault with any certainty so it is a pretty useless exercise. Nevertheless, here are 4 things to think about:
- Work on your own stuff. Learn how to overcome anxiety yourself if that is an issue and you will be able to help your kids navigate this much better. If there are other problems like conflict, depression, substance abuse, etc. then work on it. We are all broken so just “own” your junk.
- We are talking about anxiety, not starvation. You cannot go through life without anxiety. It is the normal functional fight or flight response that is happening at the wrong time. Our bodies can handle huge “doses” of this. I am not trying to minimize it but don’t get lost in it either.
- You can’t do much about the past. “Never let yesterday use up too much of today,” as Will Rogers says. You can apologize if you need to but figure out where to go from here. God gave you and your child each other with all the good and bad. I personally think that means there is a purpose for all of this. Rather than protest why it sucks, step into the purpose and figure this out.
- How anxiety got started is way less important than how it is maintained. Learn how to face and disprove the anxiety. Don’t wonder about “Why” rather focus on “How.” If you teach your child how to face and tolerate distress then you have given him or her one of the most important life-long skills possible. Take it from an old guy (that’s me), stuff goes wrong. Learning to bear the weight of that is a gift.
Want to learn more? The Turnaround Anxiety Program, has a parenting track that can help you in your journey to help when your child is anxious. Learn More >
*Chiaying, W., & Philip, K. (2014). Parental Involvement: Contribution to Childhood Anxiety and Its Treatment. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 17(4), 319-339.
**McLeod, B., Weisz, J., & Wood, J. (2007). Examining the association between parenting and childhood depression: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 27(8), 986-1003.