How to Avoid Passing Your Anxiety Onto Your Kids

Apr 10, 2024 | Adult Toolbox, Counselor's Corner, Newsletters

By Emily Henning, LSWAIC
BYS Therapist

Many of us are anxious prior to parenthood. For those who aren’t, the experience of bringing tiny humans into the world and shaping them into full-blown, independent individuals will often tip the scale in that direction. Indeed, frayed nerves are a universal experience amongst parents. So, how do we avoid passing our own anxiety onto our children? The answer is simple, though admittedly easier said than done: we take care of ourselves. 

Window of Tolerance

Each of us has a “window of tolerance,”  a zone where emotional arousal (our feelings, responses, and reactivity) can be felt and processed in a healthy way, allowing us to function and deal with stress or anxiety effectively. Ideally, we’d operate from this space at all times.  Unfortunately life, with its flat tires, hangry kiddos, traffic, and unexpected bills, is constantly working overtime to push us outside that zone. We must intentionally engage in the work of returning to the window of tolerance so that we can engage with our children from a place of health and wellbeing.

Relationship with Ourselves

This work begins by strengthening our relationship with our own selves, and growing our awareness of our varied emotional states. Mindfulness is key. Consistent check-ins with ourselves to assess our emotional states (without judgment, mind you), will go a long way in helping us anticipate when we might be skirting the edges of our window of tolerance. It can be helpful to track our emotions, too, to gain a better understanding of what situations or experiences may prove to be more personally triggering. Perhaps a certain time of day finds you more anxious, or a specific scenario. This is valuable information to have as we can use it to know how to best care for ourselves in advance.

Mitigate Effects of Anxiety

We can also mitigate some of the effects of anxiety in several basic ways. (This isn’t rocket science, but incredibly powerful all the same). 

  • Sleep

Sleep is vital to wellbeing and strengthening our emotional heartiness. We prioritize rest. 

  • Health

Similarly, healthy nutrition and adequate water intake, as well as exercise, can go a long way in reducing anxiety. Please do not mistake these suggestions as an expectation to spend ten hours a week in the gym and follow some extremely restrictive diet, though those things can be good and well for some. We’re talking about a twenty minute walk here and there. Grabbing a snack to keep ourselves fueled, when maybe we’d go without, so our blood sugar doesn’t plummet. 

We can take incredibly small steps when learning to care for ourselves, and those small steps will take us far.

Honesty regarding Anxiety

When wondering how to not pass our anxiety onto our kids, it is also important to note that perhaps, despite our best intentions, we still will. As parents we model what life as a person on this planet looks like. Our children look to us to learn what it means to be. It is unavoidable that our characteristics will be handed down, for better or worse. Unfortunately, our tendency to skew a bit anxious may be passed down, but in that same vein, there’s also an opportunity for us to pass down the necessary skills to deal with it in healthy, effective ways. 

Way Forward

As parents, we naturally want the best for our kids. We feel an instinctive need to protect them. Anxiety isn’t a pleasurable experience. Of course we wouldn’t want that to be a part of our children’s experience. But, whether it’s an isolated experience or a more chronic struggle, anxiety is a universal feeling state. If we focus too much on preventing or blocking certain feeling experiences, we rob our kids of the opportunity to grow their own emotional heartiness, to gain the skills required to take care of themselves. 

One day, they will be their own grown adult selves with bills to pay and deadlines at work and a variety of anxiety-inducing stressors. In caring for ourselves now, doing the work of intentionally returning again and again to our window of tolerance, we can model for them what it looks like to tackle anxiety head on in a positive way. As parents, it is not our duty to prevent unpleasant experiences, but to teach our children how to overcome.

ABOUT EMILY HENNING. Emily joined BYS in January of 2023 as part of her practicum for her Master’s program at Boise State University. She loves working with teens and young adults and believes that counseling can be a sacred time to hold space, process emotions, and tend to one’s inner self.