The Risk of Anxiety for Mothers and Daughters and for Fathers and Sons – Psychology Today

Sandy Millar/Unsplash

Source: Sandy Millar/Unsplash

Parents with anxiety disorders are often afraid of passing anxiety onto their children. Recent research examining anxiety transmission and sex of the parent and their offspring had some fascinating findings. Here are some of the takeaways:

  • Offspring are more likely to have an anxiety disorder if their parent of the same sex also has an anxiety disorder.
  • However, if the opposite-sex parent has an anxiety disorder, it does not increase the offspring’s risk of having an anxiety disorder.
  • On the other hand, when a child has a same-sex parent without anxiety, they have a reduced risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
  • Interestingly, having an opposite-sex parent without anxiety does not impact anxiety disorder risk in offspring.

Note that the study only looked at female and male-identified participants and did not consider other genders. Nor did it include transgender people or the impact of anxiety disorders in the offspring of same-sex couples.

The authors of this study concluded that genetics likely still play a role in the development of anxiety disorders, but possibly less so than other mental health concerns like bipolar disorder and psychosis. Instead, they emphasized the role of modeling and vicarious learning from a parent to their same-sex offspring.

What Do Modeling and Vicarious Learning Mean?

Modeling is what one person teaches another through their behaviors. For example, suppose a parent is afraid of having a panic attack while driving and avoids driving on freeways. They might be inadvertently teaching this fear to their child.

Vicarious learning is learning through the experience of others. In the panic attack example, when it is time for the child to learn to drive, they might be fearful of doing so after “learning” this fear response from their parent.

Children are like sponges, absorbing information from the world around them. This study indicates that cis-gendered kids with cis-gendered parents might identify more with a parent of their same sex. (Note: Cis-gendered means that someone’s gender identity corresponds with their birth sex.)

So, consider a parent who demonstrates anxious behaviors (e.g., expressing many worries, avoidance due to anxiety) and is the same sex as their child. In that case, the child might be more likely to “learn” that the world is dangerous than if their opposite-sex parent models those behaviors.

Oh No! Have I Affected My Child?

Rather than this research causing additional stress and anxiety to a parent with anxiety disorder, consider it an opportunity to take action. If you are a parent with anxiety struggles, here are some tips:

1. Have self-compassion. You didn’t ask to have anxiety issues, and it is not your fault that you have them. Even if you have modeled anxiety behaviors to your child, it is not the end of the world. Think of the positive ways you have parented your child, and remind yourself that no parent is perfect, anxiety problems or not.

2. It’s not too late to change. You can use your anxiety as an opportunity to teach your children positive coping skills.

Example #1: A parent has the urge to check the lock more times than necessary.

Unproductive Response: The parent rechecks the lock multiple times without saying anything. Or, they ask their child or partner for reassurance that they checked the lock (after they clearly checked it).

Productive Response Option 1: “I’m feeling anxious about whether or not I locked the door, but I’m almost positive that I already checked, so I’ll resist checking again.” This response is terrific because the parent is modeling how they are productively coping with their anxiety.

Productive Response Option 2: (to use when unable to resist the urge to check): “I’m feeling anxious about whether or not I locked the door and don’t feel comfortable leaving the house without checking it. However, I realize that it’s just my anxiety making me too worried, so moving forward, I will work on not checking more than I need to.” This response shows that the parent is not perfect (and gives the message that it is OK to have flaws) and that they have a growth mindset in terms of addressing their anxiety.

Note: If the parent can resist checking the lock without saying anything and keep their anxiety to themselves, that’s great too.

Example #2: The child indicates that they have a stomachache and headache.

Unproductive Response: The parent anxiously peppers the child with questions about their symptoms or frantically starts searching the internet to figure out what illness the child has.

Productive Response: “I’m sorry you aren’t feeling well.” If it seems warranted, tell them you will check with their doctor, or if it doesn’t seem urgent, tell them that you will wait until the next day to see how they are feeling.

3. Get some extra help. If you need some help managing your anxiety, now might be the time to find a therapist. There are also self-help books, videos, and apps that can be helpful in teaching strategies for managing anxiety. Just make sure they are from a credible source.

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The Unknown About Anxiety Disorder Transmission

Although this study has shed some light on anxiety disorder transmission, there are still many questions left to be answered. For example, the study did not address same-sex relationships.

  • Would a daughter of two mothers, each with anxiety, have a greater risk of developing an anxiety disorder than a child with one mother with anxiety?
  • Or conversely, would a daughter with two mothers, each without anxiety, be more protected than just having one mother without it?
  • How about anxiety disorder transmission risks with a transgender child or a transgender parent?

Clearly, more research is needed in these areas. However, we know that it is important to be mindful of how we express our anxiety in front of our children. With this awareness, we can change how we model certain behaviors to them.