Anxiety in Children and Parents: Who's Anxiety Is It, Anyway?

anxiety-in-childrenI’ve met many parents who are very concerned about anxiety in children or their child’s depression. It’s a big part of their job, of course. When a person or persons decide that they are going to bring a new person into the world they take on a lot of responsibility so it makes sense that they are hyper-interested in ensuring that their kid is not suffering any more than the basic suffering that comes with being alive.

But there have been lots of parents in my office for parent counseling who tell me about how their son or daughter has a lot of anxiety about some upcoming event—a school transition, a new baby, a friend moving away. They are seeking out therapy because they want to help their child with this. Then they bring the child in and, yes, the child is upset, a bit worried, unsure of the future after this change—but no where as nervous as the parent is.

I’ll digress right here—there are absolutely times when the anxiety in children needs to be addressed. This may be learning to manage issues that range from a major trauma to anxiety with regard to a regular life transition–but the interaction between the parent and child at how they are facing this together is often the challenge. Working with the child can be extremely helpful to work on goals such as teaching new coping skills and allowing for uncomfortable and scary thoughts and feelings to be expressed. But the parent’s need for assistance with how to be present for their child during this is where the lasting change can be. The parent may need to sort out what is getting in their own way as well. We are still a bundle of our own “stuff”–our own anxiety–when we bring this new person into the world. No one said you need to be completely secure with who you are when you have a child and there is certainly enough out there telling you you’re not (family, friends, books, TV shows). It’s not possible to be ready for it all and a child’s job sometimes seems to be to expose any of the loopholes that you’ve been able to hide from your partner, your friends and yourself. By this I mean the things you get angry with, lose your patience with, don’t like about yourself—these arise when you are tired, and frustrated, vulnerable and feel like you’re losing control.

You know, like how parenting can often feel.

The child can use the help; the parent can use the help—for his or herself, but also to help the child. It may mean the parent does some exploring of things he or she didn’t think they needed to explore. It’s not to say that mom or dad is mentally ill, it’s to say that in a town where the neuroses only increase once you’ve sent out the birth announcement that there is room for you to take a step back. Make sure you’re making your own parenting decisions, not the one’s you’re pressured into by a neighbor or the de facto ones that your parents made for you. I like to think of counseling for parents and for new fathers as a way of “learning yourself” so that you can be fully present for your child. Learning you don’t have to hide when you’re sad or angry or are experiencing anxiety because you are afraid of the ghosts of a depressed father or raging mother. You can model these human feelings in a healthy way so that your child knows how to get sad and angry without it taking over and without them needing to hide it.

There’s no parenting manual. It’s just you, so make sure you’re not reading from a book that someone else wrote.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)