Parent's Anxiety Disorders And Children's Adjustment
Recently, one of my readers sent me the following E. Mail that she then gave me permission to publish. This is just a portion of the E. Mail edited to protect this person's privacy:
"When I was a teenager, my mother had a severe anxiety about me leaving the house. At one point when I was in the 11th grade, she actually did not allow me to go to school the entire year. Amazingly, even though I talked with my principal and DHS, she talked to them and convinced them that she "needed" me at home and no one did anything...
No one seemed to think this was abusive. I was not allowed to go anywhere with friends or even talk on the phone because it made her nervous. I was not allowed to lock any doors in the house. If I did leave the house, I would go back inside because she followed me, screaming and begging me to come back, which was embarrassing.
I finally left home against her will. I had to take the GED since I could not attend school. I finished college and live far away from her. However, I still feel that I have problems relating to missing out on my high school years, friends, etc. It is very hard to explain to people where I was during certain years of my life."
What is so interesting about this E. Mail inquiry is that it reverses the question about separation anxiety that was addressed in a posting both this year and last in response to the opening of the school year. In this case the problem is not the separation anxiety of the child but of the mother.
What is the impact of the mother's anxiety disorder on the child? We will try to answer that question in this essay.
2. Research Evidence:
A lot of research has been completed on the mother with an anxiety disorder and how it affects her children. In looking at the findings it is important to keep in mind the role that genetics plays in the transmission of personality and mood traits. However, these studies attempted to look at behavioral characteristics to see if maternal anxious behaviors were behaviorally transmitted to her children.
For example, in one study researchers looked at interactions between anxious mothers and their children using an observational tool to collect data. What they found was that anxious mothers were colder, more critical and catastrophizing than mothers who did were not anxious. The tendency for anxious mothers to catastrophize is understandable because of the role of anxiety in being a signal of danger. The problem with the anxiety disorders is that everyday life is experienced by the anxious person as dangerous in the absence of any real threat.
Several studies showed the specific types of behaviors manifested by mothers with psychiatric illnesses towards their children. Among the illnesses studied were the anxiety disorders. One study showed that anxious mothers used such techniques with their children as 1. Guilt to control their behavior, 2. Possessiveness to keep the children close, 3. Low expressions of affection from the anxious mother to the child and 4. overall poor communication skills toward the child. Anxious mothers are often intrusive, interfering with the child's ability to engage in confidence building behaviors towards becoming more independent and autonomous.
There is a plethora of psychoanalytic research on the relationship between parental anxiety and children. John Bowlby studied the quality of attachment between child and parent and the way in which the strength of attachment affected the later development of the child. Those who are anxiously attached because they are not sure of the reliability of the presence of their mother go on to become anxious people who are always insecurely attached.
There is also a lot of literature on the impact of the agoraphobic mother on the child. Agoraphobia is the fear of being outside. It is often connected with a pre existing panic disorder in the adult that then grows into agoraphobia as the individual fears that if they leave the house they will experience panic attacks. It is these people who often wish to keep their child at home rather than sending them to school.
Not in every case but certainly in some cases a child who does not wish to go to school has a mother who prefers that they remain home. Of course, there are many situations in which a child refuses school other than the problems of the mother or separation anxiety. Such things as a school bully, fear of failure, a mean teacher or having gotten in trouble for some misbehavior may cause a child to want to remain home. However, when none of things are present and there is an anxious mother that may explain why the child refuses school.
Why would a mother want their child to remain at home? The reasons are many and varied but basically, the parent wants the comfort and company of the child at home. In addition, the fears about the outside world experienced by the mother extend to the child. This type of mother sees danger lurking in every corner that may harm their child. To this parent, there is no safer place than home.
3. Types of Anxiety and Co morbid Diagnoses:
It should go without saying that anxiety disorders are not the same and, therefore, will not lead to the same types of problems. For example, those who experience Social Anxiety Disorder do not fear going outside of the house and do not necessarily experience panic attacks. A mother with Social Anxiety Disorder may avoid visiting her child's school due to anxieties about what to say to teachers but is not likely to keep her child home.
Those people who experience Panic Attacks come to believe that they may be having a heart attack but are not fearful of being with other people. As stated above, those who experience Panic Attacks have a greater likelihood of developing agoraphobia for fear of having a panic attack while some place away from home. It is this type of Phobic person who may want to keep their children home or who, without realizing it may be teaching their children to fear the outside world.
In the case cited above in the E. Mail, the mother most likely suffered from Agoraphobia.
It is important to state that in the real world people can suffer from various behavioral disorders at the same time. There is nothing that says a person can have only a single anxiety disorder. In fact, it is those cases where someone suffers from two or three anxiety disorders that are most likely to have a negative impact on their children.
In the real world there is nothing to prevent people from suffering from anxiety disorders and Depression at the same type. All of these circumstances are referred to as Comorbid illnesses.
The mother of the E. Mail patient cited above may very well have some type of Personality Disorder along with her fears and probable depression. There are many types of Personality Disorders two of which are Avoidant Personality Disorder and Dependent Personality Disorder. Recall that a Personality Disorder is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual IV as "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that markedly deviates from the expectations of that individual's culture." Those with an Avoidant Personality Disorder feel inadequate and inhibited and avoid people for fear of being judged by others. Someone with a Dependent Personality Disorder has an excessive need to be taken care of by others. It is fairly obvious that these types of personality disordered people who may also have anxiety disorders may very well want to keep their children at home.
4. Are We Blaming the Mother?
The Need for Psychotherapy:
The answer to the question in #4 is absolutely NOT. No person chooses to suffer from panic, anxiety, phobic reactions or some type of personality disorder. I hear you asking the question of what purpose there is of pointing at the mother? The question is good and the answer is important. Here it is:
Being a parent is a difficult job even for those who do not experience a psychiatric problem. The fact is that people need help in raising children and in getting help for their emotional problems for those who have them. It was pointed out in a recent posting that it is far easier for people to get full treatment for physical illnesses than for emotional ones.
Mothers and fathers who experience any of the psychiatric problems discussed here: anxiety disorders, depression and personality disorders are deserving of treatment, especially when their children are young, so that they can do their parenting with a minimum of their problems interfering with the healthy development of their sons and daughters.
There are many types of therapy and medications to help people overcome their anxieties and live happy lives. Among these are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Modeling Therapy, EMDR, and so on. Medications reduce anxious reactions and help make the therapy work more successfully in many cases.
Therefore, the purpose is not to blame people but to let them know that there is help. It is also important to remind the reader that going for help for your self does not guarantee that the child will avoid the anxiety disorders. It is important to remember that there is always that genetic influence in the background or foreground.
5. A Personal Note:
My mother suffered from an anxiety disorder as did her mother. Certainly, in a day when not much was known about these things, she did not go for help but lived a fairly limited life. Did she communicate her fears to me? Yes, she did but not deliberately. Later, as a young adult and someone entering the field of mental health practice, it was necessary for me to get help for my fears and inhibitions. I did so and was and am able to live a normal life and that includes writing for Mental Help Net.
Your comments and experiences are welcome.