The Parental Influence on a Child's Developing Anxiety Disorder

By Nancy Lovering
Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images

Anxiety takes many different forms and is easy to miss if your child has signs like irritability, restlessness and fatigue instead of the more obvious ones such as avoiding social situations and not making eye contact. While they differ slightly in their triggers and symptoms, conditions such as separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and social phobia all share a disproportional response to a potential danger and can significantly affect your child's life. Figuring out how you might contribute to or influence your child's anxiety disorder is one way to reduce the impact the anxiety has on your child.


Children model the behavior they see. If you are an anxious parent, your child is likely to learn behaviors from you that increase anxiety, such as fixating on things over which you have no control. A study conducted at John Hopkins School of Medicine revealed that children of parents with anxiety disorders have a seven-fold increase in risk for developing an anxiety disorder themselves over those children with non-anxious parents. Whether your anxiety is genetically based or the result of a traumatic event, obtaining professional help and learning calming strategies helps both you and your child.


According to the National Institutes of Health, the evidence is considerable that genes play a role in anxiety. The mix of genes you pass on to your child includes both strengths and weaknesses and is beyond your control. However, understanding that anxiety may have a genetic component helps to determine how ingrained your child's worries can be. Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist Carl Schwartz used a magnetic scanner to observe the brains of a group of 18 year olds and discovered that the medial prefrontal cortex was thicker in the youths who were more reactive to stimuli and in communication with the amygdala longer than those of the non-anxious. The amygdala acts as the brain's alarm system and is essential to a person's ability to feel emotions such as fear and anxiety.

Helicopter Parenting

The term "helicopter parent" refers to a mother or father who micromanages much of a child's life. These well-meaning parents try and offer as much guidance and support for their children as they can, while missing that children sometimes need space and time to figure things out on their own. Emotional resilience is built on a child's ability to recover from mistakes and work through challenge. Eager helicopter parents deny their children this experience. Research from the University of Mary Washington revealed a link between helicopter parenting and decreased perceived autonomy, people skills and competence. Many helicopter-parented kids feel less able to manage stress and as a result are more anxious.


Similar to the helicopter parent, another version of the well-meaning protective parent is the one who excessively shelters a child and denies that child opportunities to learn from experience how to manage risk. Sheltering also deprives children of chances to learn good judgement. In an earnest attempt to protect their kids from legitimate and significant danger, parents who shelter also unwittingly remove potentially educational, low-risk situations from which their children could learn confidence.