Anxious Parents, Teach Your Children Well
Many of my clients are parents with children at home, and one of the first things that they'll tell me about their anxiety problem is "I've got to get fixed or my kids will be messed up too."
There are so many things wrong with that statement but it's one that I (and all parents!) can relate to on a very primal level. We want our kids to be happier, stronger, calmer, and more successful than us. But let's unpack that statement for a moment.
First, the statement assumes that anxiety means you're broken somehow. If 1 out 5 people have anxiety, that's a hell a lot of society to be just flat out broken. Once we start looking at anxiety as more of a creative character trait gone awry, there's room to make some productive changes and nobody has to be "fixed." There's a lot of freedom there. It's also a wonderful thing to share with your kids--that nobody is ever broken, they're just out of balance.
Second, the statement assumes that parents have direct control over their kids' emotional wellbeing. Of course, as parents, we have SOME control. Take severe abuse and neglect out of the picture, and we know that many of our own quirks and emotional defenses come from our parents. A lot of our patterns are learned, so it stands to reason that we would pass some of those onto our children. However, we know that there is a biological component to anxiety and an overactive nervous system, and much of that is beyond our control.
So what do we have control over? That brings us to the third and final issue: the guilt that comes with being a parent with anxiety. Most people with anxiety already make themselves wrong for having anxious thoughts at all. Then add a kid on top of that and anxiety can take you down a real shame spiral. But I always tell parents this, and I believe it: the greatest gift you can give your child is to let them see you solving a problem with bravery and curiosity. (In fact, a recent anxiety study shows that the best way to treat anxiety in children is to teach the parents skills for dealing with anxiety.) Our children will have problems in this life. Maybe their problems won't be anxiety and depression. Maybe it will be a best friend dumping them, not making the baseball team or the jazz ensemble. If we model (fake, is more like it) perfection for our children, they never get to see what true change looks like. What if you had watched one of your parents overcome something hard in his or her life? How might that lesson have changed you? Some of the most well-adjusted, resilient people I know watched their parents battle with alcoholism and overcome it. Same goes for the adult kids of divorced parents. They watched mom and dad love each other and partner with each other AND not be married anymore. Luckily, a parent with an anxiety disorder is not as dramatic as all that. Still, it has the seeds for the most important lesson we can teach our children:
Life is not perfect, but you can always be brave and make a change.
Counseling is one of the first steps in making good, lasting changes that will benefit the entire family.