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Anxious parents often have anxious children, study shows

Anxiety disorders are common in children, and new research shows they may be partially hereditary.

"As many as 65 percent of children of parents with anxiety disorders meet criteria for an anxiety disorder," wrote Golda Ginsberg, a researcher for John Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a report about childhood anxiety.

The study followed 40 families that all had at least one parent with an anxiety disorder and no children who exhibited symptoms. Half the families received therapy through a "coping and promoting strength program," and half received no therapy. One-third of the families who did not receive therapy had children who developed anxiety disorders after a year of observation, but no children developed anxiety in the families that received therapy.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 8 percent of teenagers ages 13 through 18 have an anxiety disorder, and the symptoms usually manifest around age six.

Anxiety can manifest in children for a variety of reasons, including post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and specific fear stimulants. However, "children of parents with anxiety disorders are two to seven times more likely to have an anxiety disorder compared with children from families in which neither parent has an anxiety disorder," Ginsberg states in the report.

In reporting on the study, NPR told the story of a young boy, Noah, who feared school because he was afraid of throwing up. He could only stay at school the entire day if he was allowed to call home as often as he needed.

His mother, Heather Cummings, experienced similar anxiety when she was young. "In science I'd read about a condition and think I had it, cancer or diabetes, for example," she told NPR. "If I bumped my head I'd think I'd get a concussion. If I got hit in the temple I'd watch the clock because I thought I was going to die."

The strong correlation between parent anxiety and child anxiety suggests causation, therefore, parental support is instrumental in helping children overcome their anxiety, says Noah's psychotherapist, Lynn Lyons.

"It's important that you have the same expectations of your anxious child that you would of another child," psychologist Lynne Siqueland told the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Parents who also suffer from an anxiety disorder may struggle to know how to help their child. Their own anxiety is compounded by worry for their child, and they may wish to protect and overly reassure their child rather than help them be strong.

Anxiety BC, a resource group, offers several ways parents can help, beyond the preventative therapy advised by Ginsberg's study. Parents can have older children and teenagers learn to understand and face the source of their fears, and "younger children...can benefit from coming up with some coping statements that they can say to themselves to help them deal with feelings of fear or anxiety. For example, 'It won't go on forever, it will end.'"

According to Anxiety BC, the most important thing a parent can do is help their child understand that they are not alone with their anxiety, and that they can overcome it.

Emily Hales is an intern on the national team, covering issues facing families in the United States. She is a communications major at Brigham Young University.