Yikes! Did My Child Inherit My Anxiety?
I’ve wondered this myself, and I’ve also heard this question asked often, and with so much fear and guilt. First off, even if something is “inherited” it’s not your fault—because this is not about blame. And the fact that you are asking this questions tells me that you are a parent who is tuned in to their child’s needs and willing to do some brave self-exploration! You deserve respect for this and your child is lucky to have you!
But let’s get to answering this topic—which is, does my child “have anxiety” and maybe is inherited?? I’ll start with some questions:
Does your child often seem shy and fearful around new people? What about specific fears, perhaps of bugs, flying objects, loud sounds, or new situations? Or do you have a baby who has trouble sleeping, can’t be put down, or seems like they are constantly crying?
Many children experience persistent, specific fears and worries that impact their ability to complete daily tasks, perform in school, or have thriving peer relationships. I use a compassionate, gentle, play-based model tailored to your child’s needs when it comes to treating anxiety. Some children begin to experience symptoms of anxiety as early as age 2, and if you are concerned that your child is “tightly wound,” “highly sensitive” or has difficulty staying regulated when the unexpected occurs, you might benefit from an assessment to insure you child’s needs are met.
All children experience fears. Fears are different than anxiety. Fear is a feeling that arises in response to danger--there’s a specific thing that you’re afraid of. Dogs, for example, are a common fear in young children.
Anxiety is different. The emotion of anxiety is similar to fear but without any objective source of danger. And there are two types, according to the early childhood mental health field: State Anxiety and Trait Anxiety:
You might have some clues by now whether yourself (or your child) is experiencing state anxiety or trait anxiety. But let’s look at a few more factors--the last thing I want to do is jump to a conclusion or stereotype someone--or cause you to self-diagnose!
First. types of fears and anxiety can change across development. It’s normal for infants and toddlers to have fears, but if they don’t resolve and seem to keep children from living a happy, regulated life and routine, consult an expert!
Second, fears or a sense of anxiety can show up early! Infants show fearful and shy behaviors by 18 months of age. Fears can develop as children face new experiences and challenges. For example, walking also tends to increase fear of heights (Bertenthal et al., 1984). At about 4-9 months we start to see our babies show a fear of strange adults and separation. This fear usually peaks at 18-24 months and then declines. A fear of strangers and peers peaks 20-29 months and then declines. Then, we often see older children with fears of imaginary creatures.
So, things to ask yourself--do we, the parents, (biological or adoptive--both can have an influence) have a history of anxiety? Is my child persistently reacting in a fearful or sensitive way to most situations, not just specific fears? Does my child have a lot of fears that are impacting our ability to get out the door on time, go places together, accomplish regular routines? Is my child constantly afraid to be left alone or left for daycare or preschool and this hasn’t resolved in months?
If you’re instinct is that something like trait anxiety is going on with your kid, ask for help! Research shows that persistent behaviors like inhibition and anxiety in children if untreated is linked to anxiety disorders, depression, and other psychopathology later in life. Research also does show a link between parental anxiety and child anxiety. So the best you can do is tune in and get help early! There’s a lot of healing that can happen early on!
Finally, I acknowledge that I have not personally experienced chronic or debilitating trait anxiety— I don’t know what that feels like and I won’t pretend to! If you’d like to share your experience for other’s benefit, or if you’d like to add to or question something I’ve said here! I’m merely presenting the research—you are the ones with the personal stories, and that is what matters! Chime in!
Take a look at my page on Anxiety in Childhood for more on difference types of anxiety disorders that you might experience in childhood.