Anxiety Causing Anxiety

By chance I saw a mother and her two and a half year old child on their way to a nursery school class.  The mother was carrying the child who was somewhat upset, and seemed to be protesting about where they were going.  It was a cold Monday morning and perhaps reading into this my own feelings I ventured to say that it was hard to get out on a cold morning after a cozy weekend at home.  Mom was doing a nice job of comforting the child while at the same time reassuring her that she would feel better once with her group.

It so happened that they were headed to the class I was about to visit.  Entering the room there were more protests from the child who ran back out when Mom hung up her coat.  Mom talked to her outside the door and although I couldn’t hear what she was saying the child was sufficiently reassured to return to the room with a few remaining tears.  After a goodbye kiss the mother turned and left.  The child joined the circle of a group of children getting started in an activity.  In short order she was participating and in a very short time became happily engaged with no trace of tears or protest.

Later, the mother talked to me about what had transpired.  She saw the child’s behavior as an expression of anxiety about which she was worried.  She further explained that she herself is an anxious person and when she sees this behavior in her child she worries that she is the cause – that her own anxiety is rubbing off on her child.  I told this mother that no one observing what had occurred would imagine that she was feeling anxious.  In fact, I had been thinking that she would be a good model for mothers about how to handle a child’s resistance to separation.

What is interesting about this is that the mother’s perception of her child as anxious was causing the mother herself to feel anxious, which in turn caused her to worry that she was causing anxiety in her child.  This is not an unusual chain of events.  Very often, we see behavior in a child that triggers a concern we may have about ourselves.  This in turn may cause us to worry that we are the cause of what we then become concerned about in our child.  The problem with this sequence is that it can interfere with an ability to understand our child and find a solution to what is of concern to the child rather than to us.

In this situation, the child’s behavior did not seen to be an expression of anxiety.  Rather it seemed a protest over having to leave mom and home after a long holiday that consisted of travel and other changes.  It is quite usual for children to react with regression in some areas of functioning after an illness, travel or other disruptions of routine.  If we understand this we can drop back temporarily in our expectations and offer reassurance.

Reading ourselves into children’s behavior comes up often in regard to questions about sociability such as at birthday parties, self-assertion, and various temporary bumps in development.  Mothers also tend too readily to attribute any behaviors of concern to the fact that they are working outside the home.

In this instance, the mother’s deeper concern about her anxiety being the cause of  her child’s behavior did not prevent her from responding constructively to her child.  Aware of her own feelings, she did a great job of holding them in check in the interaction with her child.  But she herself experienced needless anxiety.

When we are aware of our own self concerns, this can help keep us from attributing to our children things we don’t like or are worried about in ourselves.