Is Child Anxiety a Family Disorder?

Sensitivity is a powerful and beautiful gift that thrives when understood and nourished with attention, patience, and nurturing.

Anxiety disorders are the most common group of psychiatric disorders among children. I know, understand, and often say that vulnerability to anxiety can be and often is an indication of tremendous strengths in thinking and character. Individuals who struggle with anxiety are often highly intelligent, significantly empathic,  analytical, and very sensitive to their physical, spiritual, and social environment. So it makes sense and never surprises me when I meet one or both parents of a highly anxious child and they too are very sensitive, empathic, intelligent, and kind. I enjoy working with these parents as their lights frequently shine brightly with caring, love, and great intention. However, as light exists in every darkness, we too can find darkness in tremendous and beautiful spaces of light. When you love your child, one of your primary purposes and goals is to keep your child safe and comfortable. When it comes to your child’s anxiety, you may find yourself working harder to accomplish this. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to anxiety accommodation, which refers to family members making accommodations that ultimately reinforce and strengthen anxiety symptoms. Accommodation can be accomplished in a number of possible ways including but not limited to:

  • Allowing children to excessively avoid their fears
  • Providing constant reassurance when they are anxious (“It will be fine, don’t worry”)
  • Taking over your child’s responsibilities (i.e. doing their homework for them)
  • Changing family routines and plans to help a child avoid fears
  • Working hard to hide your child’s difficulties from other family members, friends, etc.. because of shame

In one study of family accommodation of anxiety in Rhode Island, more than 90% of parents participating in the assessment acknowledged and subsequently endorsed accommodation of their child’s anxiety. Here is the good news: this awareness is a very important step. Additionally, remember that mistakes can be powerful and positive learning experiences.

  • Allow children to frustrate and experience disappointment
  • Allow children to make mistakes when there is no legitimate threat of harm–these are great learning opportunities
  • Allow children to experience the natural consequences of their mistakes (i.e. detention at school for being late in the morning)
  • Just because you are allowing your child to experience stress, frustration, and disappointment; it does not mean you are a bad, unloving, or an uncaring parent. On the contrary, you are likely equipping them with some very valuable and important coping tools

And finally, is sensitivity and related childhood anxiety a family disorder? Not the way I see it. Instead, I see sensitivity as a family gift and strength. And when sensitivity is a component of anxiety, you have the ability to learn to manage this gift in the effort to maintain the many beautiful parts of this endowment while containing some of the potential negatives.

“Sometimes I think,
I need a spare heart to feel
all the things I feel.”

   ~ Sanober Khan