By Debbie Carlson
You want your child to inherit your good looks, goes without saying. But your fears? Not so much.
Indeed, many parents may not even realize that they are unwittingly passing down their fears and anxieties, whether it’s a fear of something tangible (airplane travel, dogs, heights) or anxiety over something less concrete (say, social skills, fear of poverty).
But, experts say, younger children react to what their parents do and say, whether these are good habits parents want to encourage, or bad habits they don’t want to instill.
“All early learning is based upon the process of association and identification,” said John McGrail, a Los Angeles-based clinical hypnotherapist. “Thus, as kids are developing, especially through age 8, they are like behavioral sponges, associating and identifying all they experience, programming their subconscious, (their) internal computers, where their learned fears will reside.”
This learning occurs through parents’ verbal and nonverbal cues to their children, said Francine Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and anxiety specialist at Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey. To cite one example, Rosenberg said kids may start to become apprehensive about dogs if their parents start telling them to avoid a park because dogs will be present or if a parent behaves anxiously around dogs.
The best way to prevent children from inheriting their fears or phobias is for adults to acknowledge and evaluate their own fears.
“You have to have a certain level of self-awareness,” Rosenberg said. “You have to see something in your child and be conscious of it.”
That’s the tricky part, of course. Sometimes a fear is so ingrained it’s hard to recognize. Or, it may be completely irrational, to everyone but you.
One way to overcome this, Rosenberg said, is for a concerned parent to ask a spouse or partner if their children are picking up their own fears or anxieties. A close relative may also be helpful.
At that point, said Dr. Claudia Gold, pediatrician and psychoanalyst at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts and author of “Keeping Your Child in Mind” (Da Capo Lifelong), it’s OK for parents to admit to their children when they are afraid of something.
If you can, name your fear and talk about it, Gold advised. “Say your fear is flying,” she said. “Explain to your child ‘This (fear) is not good for me, but I’ve found some ways (to deal with) it.’ Then it’s not such a mystery or scary.”
Moreover, Gold added, if the fear is something so overwhelming that you can’t even talk about it, “it’s more likely that your child will witness (your behavior) and be alarmed by it.”
Debbie Pincus, a New England-based therapist, expert at EmpoweringParents.com and creator of “Calm Parent AM & PM,” an audio series and workbook, agreed. Addressing your own fears, both the logical and irrational ones, becomes the best way to help your kids.
“The child needs to see we’re managing ourselves well, even if there’s something to be anxious about,” she said. “It’s the anxiety that is contagious. If the child senses the anxiety, then they may act on it.”
Projecting a sense of calm during a situation that causes the parent anxiety is easier said than done, but the adult should try to do a self-assessment and understand the source of the fear, Pincus said.
Pincus shared an example from her own life. When she was growing up, Pincus said, her mother emphasized the need to have many friends and to be popular, which her mother wasn’t as a child. When Pincus had her first child, she started worrying about his social status among his peer group, even keeping track of the number of friends he had. She became so concerned that one day she went to his school’s playground to see whether he was alone.
“I circled the playground,” Pincus recalled. “Sure enough, there he was, standing alone on the edge of the playground, and all the other kids were on the other side. … And I couldn’t take it. I went out there and said, ‘James, what is going on?’ He said, ‘Mom, could you watch out? I’m the goalie in the soccer game.'”
Pincus said the situation, recalled with humor but born in fear, helped her realize her own shortcomings.
“As soon as I saw that, I realized this was leftover stuff from my own history and parents,” Pincus said. “When I got in touch with that and what I’m passing down to him, I was able to say, ‘No more.’ … If I want to have more friends, let that be my business.”
For the record, her son is older now and has plenty of friends, she said.
Sometimes parents realize their children have already picked up on one of their fears. Rosenberg said the sooner it can be recognized, the quicker it will be to fix. Because anxiety often is affected by how the person feels, she said that parents need to help their children overcome the fears by looking for opportunities to take appropriate risks and have the kids challenge themselves and their fear.
“They might not be successful every time, but they’ve tried,” Rosenberg said. “It helps with their self-esteem and helps them develop courage.”