Can We Pass Down Our Anxiety to Our Children? An Expert Weighs In

For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from anxiety. Even as a young girl, I was unusually nervous and on edge. While I have now learned to somewhat control my anxiety, I still have my anxious moments, and I would be lying if I said I’d never had a bit of an anxiety-ridden breakdown in front of my daughter. While it’s normal and in fact beneficial to express your emotions in front of your children, I’ve started noticing certain habits in my 4-year-old daughter that have me a bit worried.

Obviously, 4-year-olds can have their temperamental moments in general. But sometimes I can’t tell if my daughter is having moments specifically related to anxiety or just regular nerves. For me, this brings up a bigger issue. Is my daughter anxious because she’s picked up on my anxiety? And is it possible anxiety can be inherited?

Here with the help of Dr. Aarya Rajalakshmi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist from the Kennedy Krieger Institute, we’re going to discuss answers to questions parents may have about passing their anxiety onto their kids.

Can anxiety be inherited?

Yes, anxiety disorders can be inherited. “The genes contributing to the risk of developing anxiety disorders can be passed on from parent to child, increasing their vulnerability towards these disorders,” explained Dr. Rajalakshmi. “Anxiety disorders are what are considered to be moderately heritable disorders, and research on the subject seems to indicate that about 30 to 50 percent of the overall risk of developing an anxiety disorder can be attributed to genetic factors.”

However, Dr. Rajalaskhmi pointed out that there is no single gene or chromosomal defect identified that can explain the occurrence of these disorders. Essentially, small genes, when inherited together, collectively contribute to the risk. 

 

What are the odds of a child suffering from anxiety if their parent does?

Dr. Rajalakshmi explained that if a parent or sibling has an anxiety disorder, the risk of a child developing an anxiety disorder is four to six times greater than a child without the same family history.

 

 

Can parents pass down their own anxiety just by exposing their children to it?

Anxiety disorders are best understood to manifest from a combination of genetic factors and environmental stressors, said Dr. Rajalakshmi. The environmental factors that may predispose one to develop severe anxiety can range from traumatic life experiences to a host of other factors, including constant exposure to parental anxiety as a child is growing up. 

“A lot of behavior in children is learned, and the learning occurs in the context of the environment that surrounds them,” said Dr. Rajalakshmi. “When parental behaviors are demonstrative of anxious tendencies, either in the form of frequent worrying or physical expressions of anxiety, they may inadvertently model such behaviors for their children.”

For instance, if a parent is given to habitually anticipating negative outcomes or fearing the worst and resorts to incessantly cautioning their children that safety is at stake, the odds of children retreating into states of anxious inhibition only increases, said Dr. Rajalakshmi. Being overprotective, striving to constantly control their child’s environment, or fostering continued dependency may comfort them in the short term but serve to make them more prone to anxiety over time.

 

What can parents do to be mindful of how they handle their anxiety in front of their children?

The significance of parents modeling healthy communication and emotional expression cannot be emphasized enough. It’s crucial that parents seek to be aware of their internal states and make an intentional effort to intervene when they start to notice an increase in anxiety. 

 

Parents modeling healthy communication and emotional expression cannot be emphasized enough.

 

 

Dr. Rajalakshmi says it’s OK for a parent to share with their child in simple terms that they’re feeling anxious or worried. “The child may then learn to express internal discomfort using words and that it is okay to let it be known when they are feeling distressed. Observing a parent deal with anxious states in simple, healthy ways including deep breathing, taking some space, going on a walk, listening to music or other such practical measures can serve to inculcate adaptive coping in a child.”

Positive lifestyle measures such as adequate sleep, healthy eating, regular physical exercise, and dedicated time for relaxation to the best extent possible are essential to a parent’s overall state of health. These measures strengthen them to effectively deal with stress in their lives, including in front of their children, said Dr. Rajalakshmi.

When parents feel impacted by anxiety significantly enough to affect their day-to-day lives, Dr. Rajalakshmi says it’s important that they seek treatment in the form of therapy and/or medication.

 


As a mother living with anxiety, it’s very painful to think that my daughter could be predisposed to struggle with anxiety like I do. She’s only four, still learning to cope and regulate her big feelings. When she gets older, we can cross that bridge should we get there. But for now, I can do what I’m wired to do as a loving and caring mom. I can be more aware of my emotions in front of my daughter and choose to try to keep my anxiety in check, as much for her as for myself. 

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