Parents who are stressed, anxious, harsh, fight, sarcastic, hostile or aversive may transmit or cause anxiety in their children.
Parents who are stressed, anxious, harsh, fight, sarcastic, hostile or aversive may transmit or cause anxiety in their children.

As a parent, you may worry about your anxiety being passed down to your child. If you’re feeling anxious and fearful, your child may pick up on those feelings. There is evidence that children can show signs of anxiety if they see it in their parents. But genetic factors and learned behaviors can also factor into a child’s generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

What causes anxiety disorders?

Several things can cause anxiety disorders in children. These factors can cause frequent “fight or flight” responses.

Biological factors

If you or a close family member has an anxiety disorder, your child has a higher chance of sharing genes that contribute to mood disorders, making them prone to anxiety. Genetics also influence neurotransmitters. If certain brain chemicals aren’t working correctly, it can cause anxiety.

Children with conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autistic spectrum disorders may have anxiety as a symptom.

Family factors

Learned behavior from family can also cause anxiety in children. If your family is generally fearful or anxious, your child can learn to feel the same way.

As a parent who was anxious as a child, you may be able to identify signs and better understand how your child feels when they’re anxious.

Environmental factors

Some children can develop anxiety after stressful events in their life. These may include:

  • Parental fights or arguments
  • Bullying
  • Death of a close relative or friend
  • Seriously illness or injury
  • Abuse or neglect

Symptoms of anxiety disorders in children

Anxiety may initially look like fear or worry. But physical symptoms will eventually appear in those with chronic anxiety. Fatigue, headaches, and stomachaches are all signs of an anxiety disorder in your child.

If you’re worried your child may have an anxiety disorder, here are signs to look for:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Bad dreams
  • Not eating enough
  • Irritation or anger
  • Negative thoughts
  • Feeling tense or fidgety
  • Stomach pain
  • Having to use the bathroom frequently
  • Excessive crying
  • Clingy behavior

Anxiety disorder versus anxious child

Anxiety is a standard part of childhood. Every child goes through feelings of anxiousness. But it's important to understand the differences between an anxiety disorder and a situationally anxious child if you are to find them appropriate help. Anxiousness in response to a specific issue is temporary and typically harmless. An anxiety disorder, though, can become chronic and interfere with your child’s development.

Generalized anxiety disorder in children causes them to worry almost every day. They’ll worry over average things like homework, friends, and making mistakes. But they’ll also worry about things like recess, riding the bus, war, weather, or the future.

Anxiety disorder in children makes it hard for them to focus in school, at home, or during daily activities. Your child might not be willing to open up to you, a teacher, or a trusted friend because they’re afraid of what will happen.

If your child is simply going through an anxious phase, you may notice them acting differently. When children are anxious out of seemingly nowhere, it could be caused by difficulty in school, being bullied, problems with friends, or other issues at home or in school.

Both kinds of anxiety may call for help. The kind of help needed may change, though, depending on the anxiety's causes, nature, and duration.

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Can you prevent children from getting anxiety?

There are ways you can help your child cope with their stress. Making sure they get enough rest and eat well can help their cognitive function. Making time for your children each day also helps them feel heard and cared for. Ask your child if they need to talk or just want to be around you.

Talking about your child’s stress and what causes it could help you both develop solutions for reducing it. Encouraging physical activity or a journaling regimen can help improve their mood overall.

Once you recognize your child has an anxiety disorder, there are methods to help prevent the anxiety from worsening. One study showed that a psychosocial prevention program held promising results for reducing a one-year impact of anxiety disorders in children whose parents were anxious.

Other ways you can help your child reduce anxious feelings include:

  • Give anxiety a name to help externalize these feelings.
  • Identify and reduce anxiety-provoking situations.
  • Control your own anxiety and learn personal coping skills.
  • Allow your children to feel stress and help soothe it.
  • Practice gradual exposure to anxious moments.

However, just because you have anxiety doesn’t mean your child will inevitably get an anxiety disorder as well. As long as you notice the signs in yourself and your child, you can start implementing coping strategies. This will keep you from passing down your anxious feelings to your child. And if your child is prone to anxiety, it’s best you know sooner to get them help at a younger age.

Treatment for anxiety disorder in a child

Anxiety disorders can be treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in most cases. It’s a talk therapy that teaches families, children, teenagers, and adults how to manage feelings of worry and anxiety.

CBT will help your child learn to work past and cope with fear and stress. Parents can also learn how to help their children respond to anxious feelings. CBT is great for helping parents and children face fear head-on and learn how to work past it.

If CBT isn’t working well and your child still needs more help, your therapist may recommend anxiety medication. They’ll prescribe this if your child’s anxiety is severe and doesn’t show signs of improvement. Medication should only be prescribed by doctors specializing in children and teen mental health.

By recognizing an anxiety disorder in your child and getting them help, you’re setting them on the road to success. It’s okay to acknowledge when your child is not in a good headspace and provide support. Communicating with your child is a great way to help them open up about their emotions.

If you need help, you can talk to a therapist about your feelings of anxiety. They’ll be able to get you help and teach you how to help your child. If your anxious feelings focus solely on your child, you can talk to your OB-GYN about solutions.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/6/2022
References
ADAA: "Anxiety Disorders in Children."

CDC: "Anxiety and Depression in Children."

Child Mind Institute: "How to Avoid Passing Anxiety on to Your Kids."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Anxiety in children."

KidsHealth: "Anxiety Disorders," "Childhood Stress."

NHS: "Anxiety disorders in children."

NHS inform: "Anxiety disorders in children."

The American Journal of Psychiatry: "Preventing Onset of Anxiety Disorders in Offspring of Anxious Parents: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Family-Based Intervention."

The Mental Health Foundation: "The Anxious Child."

Yale Medicine: "Childhood Stress and Anxiety."