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Child Anxiety & Parenting Styles

At a basic level, anxiety occurs when we do two things: (1) exaggerate or overestimate the risk, problem, or threat and (2) underestimate our ability to deal with it. Anxiety is the tense emotional state that happens when situations are unpredictable and have no guarantee.

In Dr. Chansky’s book, “Freeing Your Child From Anxiety”, she describes research by Johns Hopkins University, which summarized over twenty studies of parenting factors associated with children. These factors either reinforce or reduce anxious behavior in children. The author points out that these studies simply show correlation between parenting styles and anxiety in children, not suggesting that parenting styles cause anxiety. There are a number of factors that contribute to children having anxiety (genetics, temperament, environment, life stresses etc.) This list is not meant to blame anxiety on parents, but to simply see what’s going well and what could be worked on in hopes of decreasing anxiety in children.

Parenting Behaviors Associated with Anxiety in Children:

  • Parental over-control: intrusive parenting, exerting control in conversation, limiting of autonomy and independence in conversation.

  • Overprotection: excessive caution and protective behavior without cause.

  • Modeling of Anxious Interpretation: agreeing with child’s distortion of the risk in the situation, reinforcing the idea that normal things in the world are too scary to approach

  • Tolerance of encouragement of avoidance behavior: suggesting or agreeing with not trying something difficult.

  • Rejection or Criticism: disapproving judgmental, dismissive, or critical behavior

  • Conflict: (not as strong a factor) two out of five studies found fighting, arguing, and disharmony in family associated with high levels of anxiety.

Positive Parenting Behaviors That Buffer Stress:

  • Reward Coping Behavior: focus on means, not ends, reward taking on challenges, recognize partial successes.

  • Extinguish Excessive Anxious Behavior: reduce anxious behavior by not responding to it excessively, either with concern or anger

  • Manage Own Anxiety: limit displays of distress, don’t introduce parent’s worries into the mix

  • Develop Family Communication and Problem-Solving Skills: open-house policy for positive communication and problem-solving opportunities

  • Authoritative/Democratic Parenting Style: Authoritative/Democrative style – parents direct children’s behavior while valuing independence – is associated with lower levels of anxiety (vs. Authoritarian style—parents’ demand obedience, limit autonomy; or Permissive style—parents avoid any attempts to control behavior.)

If your child is struggling with anxiety, I highly recommend Chansky’s book. It’s jam-packed with helpful tools for both parents and children.

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