Is Your Own Anxiety Hurting Your Child?

How your anxiety can be transferred to your child and how to recognize the signs.

Anxious mother holding her child urtaeva_alla | Canva

Many people, especially women (rates for females are twice the rates in males), struggle with anxiety. I grew up in a home with anxious parents, and this led to my childhood anxiety. From what I know now, I would have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety, Social Anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. 

Thankfully, in adulthood, I worked hard to cure my anxiety and did so, pretty much through self-directed exposure therapy because I did not want to be an anxious parent. Parents who struggle with anxiety generally will transmit this to their children, because children are evolutionarily primed to learn what is dangerous from their parents, to survive. 


If you tell yourself that your anxiety is not impacting your child, that may be wishful thinking and something you need to recognize.

RELATED: 10 Signs You Grew Up With Anxiety

Children don’t express anxiety the same way that adults do. Physical symptoms are more common because young kids can’t articulate themselves as well as adults can. 

You may not see your child’s stomachaches as a sign of anxiety, but this is one of the most common manifestations of anxiety in kids. Similarly, a kid being irritable or oversensitive is a hallmark of childhood anxiety but may be taken as “just a bad mood” by a parent who doesn’t understand. Sleep disturbances are similar; most kids are not just “bad sleepers” without any reason, and this is a common way that you can tell that your child suffers from anxiety. Here’s a good list of other symptoms.


Maybe you do recognize your child’s anxiety as anxiety, which usually happens when they start refusing to go to school or social activities or start worrying about the health and safety of themselves or family members, and you have gotten them into therapy. This is great, and certainly a lot better than not doing so. However, the effectiveness of your child’s therapy will be significantly lessened if they return from every therapy session to a house characterized by high levels of adult anxiety

As I always tell my adult clients, the best way to treat your child’s anxiety is to treat your own. (Even better would be for both of you to be in therapy separately.)

RELATED: You Are Not A Bad Parent Because Your Child Is In Therapy


With a therapist, you can learn to sit with your feelings of anxiety while they peak and decrease, without engaging in any of your usual safety behaviors. This is called exposure and response prevention and is a highly effective behavioral treatment for anxiety disorders of all types. You can learn which things you say and do are perpetuating your child’s anxiety and making them think of the world as a scary, dangerous place that they need to retreat from. You can learn to recognize both your own and your child’s physical, cognitive, and emotional signs of anxiety, and learn ways to relax and grow more centered and secure.

People with anxiety often do not see the forest for the trees. For example, they will prevent their child from climbing high on a playground, not recognizing that the odds of their child having a fatal fall are almost zero but the odds of them developing an anxiety disorder from hearing about the dangers of falling are very high. That is why I always say “It is easier to fix a broken bone than an anxiety disorder.”

In this day and age of COVID-19, anxious children are suffering greatly, especially if their parents’ anxiety is sky-high. Kids perceive the world as even more dangerous, a view which is amplified beyond all reason by clinically anxious parents. Even when precautions are in place, some anxious kids of anxious parents refuse opportunities to socialize and grow more and more isolated and fearful. Parents who suffer from pre-existing anxiety, including social anxiety, fare the worst in these times. 

Therapy can help you see more clearly what is reasonable and what may not be in your approach to the pandemic, and how to live following your values as a person and a parent during this time.


RELATED: The Perfect Therapy For People With Anxiety Disorders

Most parents feel uncomfortable and unhappy with their kids’ more obvious expressions of anxiety. It triggers them because, on some level, they may recognize that they have set up their child to view the world in anxious, harmful ways. 

@childmindinstitute Managing your own stress is the best way to keep your child from picking up your anxiety. #Anxiety #AnxiosKids #MyAnxiety #anxiousmom ♬ original sound - Child Mind Institute

For example, I experienced parental disapproval for some aspects of my childhood anxiety while simultaneously being trained to view people as “bad” in many ways. It was likely uncomfortable for my parents to view my fear of other kids as deriving from their fear of other adults, so they pushed the parallel out of consciousness.


I see many clients who struggle with recognizing unhealthy behaviors in their kids. And this is certainly not reserved for manifestations of anxiety. For example, the same woman who calls her husband terrible names during a fight will become enraged when she hears her son do the same thing to her daughter. This is because she feels deep shame, so deep as to be below conscious recognition, about modeling this toxic behavior. This is not dissimilar from when a parent who has a fear of flying becomes very irritated with a child whose fear of getting into a pool prevents the family from having a nice time on vacation (the vacation they had to drive to; irony abounds in these sorts of situations).

If you fear that your anxiety is impacting your kids in ways you aren’t even aware of (and some that you are sadly aware of), this is a very adaptive fear and one you should act on! 

The deepest part of you that loves your kids and would do anything for them is alerting you that it may be trying to go outside your comfort zone and finally work on your anxiety. Not only do you deserve to live your best, most free, and least constricted life, but your children deserve to have the carefree childhood that, if you think back to yours, you likely didn’t get to have. Ride the momentum you may be feeling right now and reach out to a therapist.


RELATED: How To Raise The Best Version Of Your Child — By Forgetting What You Know About Parenting

Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of Dr. Psych Mom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.