• Collaborative

How to prevent passing on your anxiety to your children in this time of lockdown

Dr E. Barron, Dr E. Stantiford, Dr A. Hubert, Pr R. Delorme, Dr C. Stordeur (Child Psychiatrist)



Seeing a parent in a state of chronic anxiety can be disturbing for your child. Children usually turn to their parents to help them give meaning to complex situations; if a parent seems constantly anxious or fearful, the child will, in turn, feel anxiety and fear.

Your child takes example on you, you are his model –

But that shouldn’t make you feel guilty or worry you.

It might be hard for you to think that, despite your best intentions, you can pass on your own stress to your child. But if you are anxious and note that your child shows signs of anxiety himself, one of the most important things is not to feel guilty about it. That would be counter-productive, let’s rather examine how one can find more serenity.

The transfer of anxiety from parent to child is not inevitable

First and foremost, it’s important to put strategies in place to avoid passing on your anxiety to your children. In practice this means that you have to deal with your own stress as efficiently as possible and help your children cope with theirs.

1) Learn stress managing techniques.

Share and teach your kid the strategies you use when facing stressful situations. He will have the capacity to use these techniques when he feels anxious. For example, if you use relaxation, mindfulness exercises or yoga, you can perform these with your kid.

Give yourself some time to take a break. This will allow you to save some energy when the time comes to keep a calm and neutral behavior in front of your child, even if you are trying to cope with your anxiety at the same time.

Try to avoid using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs to cope with anxiety. If you happen to take a treatment for anxiety, do not modify it without the advice of your doctor. Be careful: drinking in the evening might relieve you momentarily but increases your anxiety the next morning.

Sleep!! You have to strive to maintain a healthy sleep pattern. More often than not, in this lockdown period, we parents watch television or series late at night. Hence, we often lack sleep!! Be careful as lack of sleep increases anxiety. Keeping a good sleep hygiene is essential, and if you wake up early then go to bed early. Try to avoid naps as they will disrupt your sleep cycle and lead to nighttime ruminations (more on that on an upcoming notice on sleep)

2) Later on, explain your anxiety to your children

If you don’t want your child to witness every moment of your anxiety, you don’t however need to constantly restrain your emotions. It is normal, and even healthy, for children to see their parents coping with stress from time to time, but you can explain to them why you reacted this way, for example, that you lost your calm because you were afraid of being contaminated while coming back from shopping when someone came to close to you without a mask. Later on, when things cool down, tell him: “remember how I was really stressed up this morning? I felt anxious because if was afraid of being contaminated, and the way I dealt with that was to lose my temper and shout really loud. But there are other ways of dealing with stress”.

Talking about anxiety in this manner gives children permission to feel stressed too. On the contrary, never allowing our children to see us sad, angry or anxious gives them the message that they are not allowed to have these feeling, to express them, and hence no possibility to learn how to cope with them.

3) Implement a strategy to anticipate situations triggering your anxiety

Try to spot the moments or situations that trigger your anxiety. For example, if you feel worst in the morning, try waking up a bit earlier to unwind and relax before your children wake up. Or if daily news or smartphone messages are a source of anxiety, try to reduce exposure to this kind of information for a while.

Define a few relaxing moments during the day: set out 3 to 5 moments when you can unwind. Set aside a break of 5 to 10 minutes to listen to music on headphones, take a shower or a bath, or call a friend. It should be clearly stated to everyone that these are your moments, and that you should not be disturbed (as is too often the case with children).

Try to formalize a time for physical activity of (20 minutes once a day as the WHO recommends). You can download applications on your smartphone for these exercises. These sport breaks have shown their efficacy when performed daily to lessen significantly sadness and anxiety.

4) Know when to disengage when you feel a situation is getting overwhelming

If you know a situation is causing excessive stress, you can choose not to do it to prevent your children from seeing it as an endangering situation. As a rule of thumb, if you feel overwhelmed by anxiety in the presence of your kid, tell him that you are going to stop the activity, without worrying him, and that you are going to resume that activity at the end of the day (when you should feel better).

If you live as a couple or if there is another adult with you during the lockdown period, ask him or her to take the lead when you cannot handle a situation anymore. It is preferable to let them know of your emotional status. Be careful however, as we tend to regulate ourselves less effectively and let our anxiety grow more when someone else is aware of our it, than when we have an obligation to self-manage. Hence, try not to over-use the other adult as a relay.

5) Look for help in the network around you

There are a lot of people around you, other than the people living in your contained environment. Your family and your friends are close, even if they live on the other side of the country. You can call them and tell them about your anxiety. Your close ones are always your allies.

Warning!! Try not to become totally dependent on these calls. Don’t call them every 5 minutes. Try to set a call schedule, once or twice a day. Try to call them when you feel better, during the day, rather than when your anxiety is at its peak.

Trying to be a parent while fighting against our own stress can be a challenge but you don’t have to be alone. You can count on people who can intervene when you feel overwhelmed and will offer you support. These persons can be therapists, your loved one, relatives or friends. You can also find help on blogs, online forums and social medias

6) I have really annoying anxiety symptoms – and I feel exhausted and overwhelmed

In cases of severe anxiety symptoms, it is essential to seek advice from you doctor. Don’t self-medicate. A lot of psychiatrist and psychologists do video consultations. It may be difficult to reach your general practitioner, but mental health specialist can help you.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, feel more and more tired, then do not hesitate to seek help quickly. Do not stay alone with your anxiety. You can reach the numbers dedicated to the Covid19 epidemic in your country.

Translated by Dr. Benjamin Pitrat (psychiatrist)

48 Boulevard Serurier, 75019  Paris France

©2020 by Dr. Benjamin Landman. Child Psychiatry, Robert Debre Hospital - Paris