Anxiety Disorders Pass From Parent To Child

Written by Jim Folk
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Written by Jim Folk
Written by Jim Folk
Last updated July 16, 2022
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It’s estimated that approximately 30 percent of the general population develops anxiety disorder, with approximately 10 percent of those having severe to very severe conditions.

We believe those numbers are much higher since many people don’t come forward or seek treatment. Many people suffer in silence.

Anxiety disorder can cause mild to severe lifestyle impairment and many physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual symptoms.

Visit our Anxiety Disorder Symptoms section for more information about the many symptoms, including descriptions, causes, treatments, and prevalence of each symptom.

Anxiety disorder can impact a person on many levels, including relationships, education, career, physical health, financial well-being, and overall quality of life. Its effects are widespread and far-reaching.

None of us sets out to develop anxiety disorder. In fact, most anxiety disorder sufferers would give anything to get rid of it.

For years we were told that anxiety disorders were caused by a biological problem with the brain, chemical imbalance in the brain, or genetic predisposition.

However, we’ve maintained over the years that those “causes” weren’t true. Thankfully, over the last 15 years, research has dispelled those “causes.” You can read more about that in our “Anxiety Myths” section, specifically the myths of:

About 15 years ago, research dispelled the biological cause of anxiety disorder. About 11 years ago (in 2011), Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times, officially put the “chemical imbalance” theory to rest. And a couple of years ago, the genetic predisposition theory was proven untrue.

Again, you can read more about that in the “Anxiety Myths” section of our website.

We’ve always maintained that the environment we grow up in sets us up to develop anxiety disorder.

For instance, there is a high prevalence of anxiety disorder in those who experienced early-life abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual). While not everyone who is abused develops anxiety disorder, many do.

Moreover, being abandoned, over-protected, overindulged, overly criticized, and parents who abused drugs are common environments that influence the development of issues with anxiety.

Recovery Support members can learn more about the many backgrounds that can set up a struggle with anxiety in chapter 7 – The Underlying Factors of Anxiety.

While being raised in an environment of abuse is a common underlying factor that sets up a struggle with anxiety, so is modeling – watching the anxious behavior of parents.

New research entitled “Sex-Specific Transmission of Anxiety Disorders From Parents to Offspring”[1] has confirmed that anxious parents often pass their anxious behaviors to their children through modeling. This is more pronounced with mother-to-daughter transmission.

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“Children may be more likely to learn anxious behavior if it is being displayed by their same-sex parent (i.e., sons learning their fathers’ behavior and daughters learning their mothers’ behavior),” said study co-author Barbara Pavlova, a clinical psychologist in the mood disorders program at Nova Scotia Health Authority in Halifax, Canada, writes Denise Mann for MedicalExpress.[2]

Mann further writes, “But this isn’t inevitable or irreversible, Pavlova said. “The results suggest that children learn anxious behavior from their parents, and this means that transmission of anxiety from parents to children may be preventable.”

Mann continues, “The upshot? Anxious moms are more likely to have anxious daughters, and anxious dads are more likely to have anxious sons. But sharing the house with a same-sex parent who isn’t anxious appears to protect children from anxiety. Those kids were 38% less likely to develop an anxiety disorder, the researchers found.”

“Because children share approximately the same amount of genetic material with their mothers and fathers, our findings suggest that the role of environmental factors may be especially strong in the transmission of anxiety,” Pavlova said.

Felicity Nelson for Sciencealert writes:[3]

Researchers looked at the role of nature versus nurture in the development of anxiety, examining a dataset of around 400 Canadian children aged around 10 who had previously participated in a study focused on families at risk for mood disorders.

If genetics played a larger role, anxiety disorders would presumably occur in children of both sexes at the same rate regardless of whether the mother or father was the parent passing down the anxiety condition.

If kids were developing anxiety disorders because they were modeling themselves on and learning from a same-sex parent, a distinct pattern of transmission from mother to daughter and father to son would be expected.

The latter is what the researchers found – at least to an extent. 

In the study, the kids who had a same-sex parent with an anxiety disorder had almost three times the chance of developing the same condition compared with their peers. (To our knowledge, the study did not include transgender children or adults.)

A mother’s anxiety disorder (but not a father’s) increased their daughter’s risk of being diagnosed with an anxiety condition in the study.

Previous studies have demonstrated that anxiety can be a learned behavior that children pick up from their parents.

For example, an experiment where parents were randomly instructed to either act anxiously or calmly while a child prepared for a spelling test, showed that kids mirrored that attitude and developed anxious cognitions and avoidance behaviors. 

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The good news is that because anxious behavior is learned, we can learn healthy ways of coping with adversity, uncertainty, and risk. So, those with anxiety disorder can overcome it and live healthy and satisfying lives despite starting out anxious.

Moreover, anxiety disorder can be prevented by parents seeking help for their anxiety, then passing on healthy coping styles to their children as they raise them.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome anxiety disorder and learn healthy parenting styles that prevent passing down anxious behavior.

For a long time, we’ve proclaimed the good news that anyone can overcome anxiety disorder by making healthy behavioral change. It’s great to see research finally catch up to what anxiety disorder therapists have been saying for years.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and coaching/counseling/therapy for problematic anxiety and its sensations and symptoms, including Anxiety Disorders Pass From Parent To Child.

References

1. 1. Pavlova, Barbara, et al. "Sex-Specific Transmission of Anxiety Disorders From Parents to Offspring." JAMA Network, 12 July 2022.
2. 2. Mann, Denise. "Can anxiety disorders pass from parent to child?" MedicalXpress, 13 July 2022.
3. 3. Nelson, Felicity. "Anxiety Is More Likely to Be Passed From Mother to Daughter, New Study Finds." sciencealert.com, 13 July 2022.