Thanks to a bad accident Danielle experienced when she was younger, anxious thoughts trickle into her mind whenever she gets behind the wheel.
What if a driver rolls through a red light? What if a car crashes into us, harming the kids? What are the odds this bridge collapses?
One day, Danielle realized that her six-year-old son had begun to express the same concerns.
“When I started noticing my six-year-old son mimicking some of that, I realized that I needed to do a better job of managing my anxiety in the car. I hated the idea of him worrying about a car accident when he's never experienced one,” Danielle said.
Kids Pick Up on Parents’ Anxiety
Stories like this are not uncommon – it’s normal for kids to pick up on their parents’ anxieties and mimic them.
Children are very in tune with their parents’ stress levels and are more vulnerable to secondhand stress than we may think. Their brains are still developing, and so they’re very sensitive to environmental stressors, such as their parents’ behavior.
In fact, studies have shown that even when kids are not in a stressful situation themselves, they feed off of their parents’ energy – and the more anxiety a parent feels, the higher their child’s anxiety and stress levels will be. In other words, it’s incredibly easy to pass on your own anxieties to your kids without even realizing it.
“Our children's brains are sponges and they look up to you, model your behavior, and get cues about their own safety based on your behavior and what you say. When they feel that you're worried or anxious they, too, fear the world,” Emily Roberts, MA, LPC, a New York-based psychotherapist and parenting consultant, said.
That said, when parents model healthy ways to manage intense emotions, they can teach their children that anxiety is not something to fear, but something to accept and work through, Roberts said.
Learn to Face Your Fears
So, what can you do the next time you start to feel anxious?
First, acknowledge and accept what you’re feeling. Don’t try to fight it off or ignore it. Doing so tends to exacerbate the symptoms and worsen your anxiety. Remember, anxiety is just a feeling, just like every other feeling.
Many mental health experts believe that with the help of lifestyle changes and coping strategies, certain anxieties can essentially be unlearned. Rather than running away from your anxieties, learn to face your fears and work through them.
“The best way to confront anxiety is to do so head on,” Dr. Shane Owens, a board-certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist who focuses on anxiety, said. “Anxiety is a learned behavior that can be unlearned by putting yourself in contact with fear again and again until it disappears.”
Question Your Anxieties
Dr. Owens recommends that you pause and question how realistic your anxieties are. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen?” and “How realistic is it that that will happen?” This will help you challenge your thoughts and realize how unrealistic and unlikely your worries are.
Find a Technique That Helps Your Cope
Breathe: Deep breathing exercises are a good tactic for reducing anxiety levels. It activates the body’s relaxation response. Try inhaling to a count of four then slowly exhaling to a count of four, then repeat this several times.
Find a Safe Space: Many people also find it helpful to stop what they’re doing and go to a quiet place for a few minutes to silence their thoughts and reset.
Distract Yourself: When we’re anxious, our brains go into overdrive and our thoughts begin to race. It’s important to get out of your head and slow down your thoughts. Some experts recommend doing an activity that can distract your mind and engage the logical side of your brain – such as listening to a podcast, counting numbers or telling a story.
Look for Goal-Oriented Activities: If you have the time and are able, focus your attention on a meaningful, goal-oriented activity. It could be something as little as doing the laundry, going to a movie, or taking the dog on a walk.
Talk to Your Kids About It
If you do lose your temper or begin to get stressed in front of your kids, talk to them about what you’re feeling.
Show them that feeling anxious is a common experience and something that can be worked through. If your kids see you facing your anxieties and practicing coping strategies, they will be more likely to model those positive behaviors instead.
This teaches them that it’s okay to feel anxious and that’s it’s completely manageable. As a result, they’ll be more comfortable and confident to explore and play in the world around them.
“Parenting is a lot about teaching your kid to handle things you won’t be around to see,” Dr. Owens said. “Demonstrate facing your irrational fears and overcoming them instead of avoidance or escape.”
Work on Your Coping Mechanisms Together
Danielle eventually realized that her kids were calmer and happier in the car when she, too, was calm and happy.
Now when she drives, Danielle makes a point to put on an audiobook or have a productive, engaging conversation with her family. Doing so keeps her mind from kicking into overdrive.
Outside of the car, Danielle practices self-care regularly to keep her anxiety in check. She exercises, meditates, focuses on healthy eating and does cognitive behavior therapy.
“I know that my children may someday experience symptoms, I work with them to learn coping mechanisms,” Danielle says. “I teach them deep breathing, we talk about our feelings, we practice how to talk assertively to others, we exercise and we spend time outside together.”