Like Mother, Like Daughter: Whose Anxiety Is It, Anyway?

Mother and worried daughter sit on grassWhile new parents frequently seek the “right way” to parent, there is no one rule book. Rather, there are many, often contradictory, guides to parenting. The lack of certainty about how to raise and care for a child can create intense anxiety for a new parent. Some learn, soon enough, that they will figure out how to be good enough parents. Others never lose an overwhelming anxiety that each decision could have life-or-death consequences. The communication of high levels of parental anxiety frequently results in children whose anxiety controls, limits, and shapes their relationships to the world.

Anxiety is an internal state that is communicated in a variety of ways. The anxious mother holding her baby can unconsciously communicate her inner agitation through her body tension and facial expressions. The young child may sense a parent’s anxiety in the parent’s frantic behavior or speech.

Eventually the child becomes old enough to be the recipient of clear expressions of anxiety in the parent’s verbal communications. The child can experience the parent’s anxiety when told, “No, honey, you’re not old enough for play dates,” or, “I don’t care if your friends can stay out until 9. It’s not safe out there,” or in the parent’s intake of anxious breath every time the child goes down the slide or falls and bruises a knee.

Repeated exposure to parental expressions of anxiety teaches children to expect that they will be vulnerable in a risky world. These lessons are not simply intellectual. They are emotional communications which often have an unconscious component: the lesson to be learned is transmitted and received unconsciously. It is a very powerful communication.

The Inability to Self-Soothe

When parental anxiety is communicated, consciously or unconsciously, the child’s defenses are put on high alert. If parents are overwhelmed by their own anxieties and can’t soothe themselves, it can be difficult to calm and reassure their children. Without an experience of being calmed as infants, children may not develop an ability to self-soothe. They may develop anxiety, which paradoxically functions as a signal that they are in protective mode. It’s as if the anxiety is evidence of vigilance toward pending danger and thus has a calming influence.

It would be risky to let go of this essential feeling by using rational thoughts to challenge the basis of the anxiety. Instead, anxiety can be put on temporary hold with behavioral distractions that anesthetize against anxiety but don’t alleviate the feelings.

The Intergenerational Transmission of Anxiety

Kate initially came to see me two years ago because she was unhappy with her work life. She is a painter with a master’s degree in fine arts working as an administrator in an art gallery. She was doing little painting, hated her work, and felt clueless about what she wanted to do with herself professionally. She was married with a 17-year-old daughter.

Through our work, we learned about Kate’s lack of belief in her ability to be a good painter and her intense anxiety about showing her work publicly. She described a history of feeling tortured when she painted and had anxiety attacks when she had to submit work to her professors. She acknowledged that even though she won several prizes for her art and was considered very talented by the faculty, “Putting my work out there feels like I’m walking naked in the streets where everyone can see my private parts.” She never was able to initiate the showing of her work and became filled with dread the few times she was persuaded to allow her work to be seen in public.

Talking in therapy helped Kate to paint more at her small studio at home. She began to allow herself to enjoy the experience after she learned to slow down her anxious feelings and use her thoughts to calm herself. But she was clear that she thought it best to leave painting to her personal enjoyment and figure out what else she could do with her life. As we began to look further at Kate’s history, her narrative revealed her to be a person with intense anxiety about almost everything in her life:

“I’ve always had terrible separation anxiety. I went away to college, but it was less than two hours from home. I drank a lot and smoked pot from late middle school until midway through college. I over-ate, I still do. I know I’ve used these things to get rid of my feelings. I think when I started to paint and could get into a kind of Zen place and not worry about any audience, it calmed me down. That’s what probably helped with my drinking and pot smoking. But as soon as my painting was up for judgment, I would freak out. Sometimes I would skip classes or feel sick and go home for days.”

I asked how her parents dealt with her anxiety and her homecoming. Laughing ruefully, she told me, “They didn’t have a clue what to do. I made them, especially my mother, very anxious. She always seemed so agitated when I was conflicted and anxious. It was as if she didn’t want to address my issues because she didn’t know what to do, and that made her a ball of anxiety. I would feel so helpless and angry, and I think she did, too. I soon learned not to come home when I was upset. That only made things worse.”

Then Kate went silent and became tearful. I waited as she slowly began to speak. “You know, I’ve talked mostly about me and my work life in my therapy with you,” she said. “I know that my anxious mother is not news to either of us and how much that has influenced me. But I’ve been ashamed to bring up the fact I’m just like her. My daughter Erica just turned 19. She’s finishing her freshman year in college …”

Repeated exposure to parental expressions of anxiety teaches the child to expect that he or she will be vulnerable in a risky world. These lessons are not simply intellectual. They are emotional communications which often have an unconscious component: the lesson to be learned is transmitted and received unconsciously. It is a very powerful communication.

Kate paused, then started to sob and shake. “I see what’s happening,” she said. “Erica is just like me—a ball of anxiety. She calls home a lot to talk to me, not her father. I know she can feel how anxious I am about her being away at school. I don’t know if she’s calling to reassure me that she’s OK or to check in to see if I’m OK. … I’m an awful mother. I know I don’t help her and only make her more anxious. The problem is I really am scared for her. I didn’t give her the tools to take care of her feelings. Like me, she doesn’t know how to use her thoughts to find ways to counteract her anxious feelings. Worse is when she tells me her anxious feelings, I feel like the best I can do is not share my anxious feelings with her. I feel totally at a loss to offer any useful, thoughtful, soothing response.”

I was familiar with the phenomenon Kate was describing: the intergenerational transmission of anxiety. Like her mother and now her daughter, Kate’s anxiety always lurks at the edge of her emotional life. It is on call to alert her to danger and can be summoned consciously and unconsciously to send out the signal to a loved one that he or she, too, must be vigilant. What else can a good mother do? How can she not warn her child of impending danger? Kate’s mother couldn’t contain her dread and needed Kate to feel it so she could become part of the team to defend against harm. Kate needed to be sure that Erica would be able to function in the world and protect herself from all the dreadful possibilities she was at risk of encountering. While often unconscious, it is a relief for an anxious mother to know that her child is on alert and aware of the many possible threats to her well-being.

Unlike her mother, Kate had become aware of the disadvantages of being unable to manage anxiety. Her recognition that Erica’s anxiety was intensified in the presence of her own strongly contributed to her wish to disrupt this harmful intergenerational cycle. Talking with me helped her use the rational thought that “if I soothe myself and lessen my own anxiety, I will be better able to help Erica with hers.” She was determined not to perpetuate the cycle of anxiety.

Kate has begun to talk with Erica about what she has learned about the intergenerational transmission of anxiety. They have had some honest and painful discussions about the ways they each make the other anxious and have needed the other to mirror their anxiety so they could feel better. Erica has decided to begin her own therapy, and Kate continues to work with me on becoming more comfortable with all her feelings and the feelings she evokes in others. She is slowly developing a greater tolerance for her negative feelings and the negative responses she has been protecting herself from for so many years. When she experiences the anxieties of her mother and daughter, she has started to think thoughts that help her to remind herself that she is a separate person with her own feelings. She can say to herself, “I’m not the same as you. I see you are anxious and scared, but I don’t have to be. These anxieties are not rational, and I don’t have to be in that irrational-feeling space.”

This is hard work for Kate, but the strong wish for her daughter to be free from the same anxiety that has debilitated her is strong motivation for Kate to continue her struggle for change.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 9 comments
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  • Anne T

    Anne T

    January 28th, 2016 at 6:49 AM

    I am a highly anxious person so I am hoping beyond hope that I do not pass this on to her. I think that she will be a lot more calm and laid back than I ever was , but I guess you never know how things will begin to affect her especially after seeing how I cope (or don’t in many instances), so this is a good reminder to me to try a little harder to keep things in check.

  • Pate

    Pate

    January 28th, 2016 at 11:46 AM

    So this is something that is real? My kids could be normal and who knows what I am doing to them that I am not even realize with my own little quirks/

  • Alison

    Alison

    January 28th, 2016 at 1:52 PM

    I don’t want that circle to continue. I know that I get mine from my mom. Time to break the chain.

  • Alicia

    Alicia

    January 29th, 2016 at 7:44 AM

    Both of my parents were always worriers so I guess that I get it naturally. I know that there were so many times when I was growing up that I would try anything to soothe those fears, I was a jokester, and so I wanted everyone to laugh and smile and not be so anxious all the time. But I had a hard time always living up those expectations all the time so that ended up being hard on me on a personal level. It is hard to always try to soothe the situation, sometimes I needed a place where I could feel anxious too but then there was no one to comfort me

  • lauren

    lauren

    January 29th, 2016 at 1:09 PM

    They need to have their own anxieties, not mine. I can’t solve mine so how would i expect them to carry it and solve it?

  • Samel

    Samel

    January 30th, 2016 at 6:33 AM

    The one thing that I would like to add here is that this does not always mean that this has to come from the mother. I feel that moms often get a bad rap, like if there is something going on with the kids then you only have to look at the mother and then you know why. There are so many mothers doing the very best that they can with the situations that they have been given and you might have to look a little deeper than just that mother child relationship to discover where the real roots of the anxiety come from.

  • Camille

    Camille

    January 31st, 2016 at 7:07 AM

    I am the opposite- I think that kids learn by doing, even when they get hurt, that these are the things that make the biggest impressions on them and therefore they should be allowed to experience every part of life, the good and the bad, and this will eventually help them establish their own rules and boundaries for themselves.

  • Tee

    Tee

    February 4th, 2016 at 3:54 PM

    So which is it- anxiety is a bad thing and is harmful? Or is it good for you like another piece on here suggests? I just don’t know how it can be both, and I find it really confusing that I would get conflicting info from the same website. Not being critical, but just always searching for answers.

  • Eliza

    Eliza

    February 5th, 2016 at 11:06 AM

    Do you mean the article “7 ways anxiety works to your advantage”? My understanding of that article was not that anxiety was “good” for you, but that it’s possible to harness its effects and use them. Anxiety is a normal resoonse but without treatment it can definitely become severe and cause harm, as stated in both articles.

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