Let’s take this case study of one of my students in 2017.
Nandita’s (name changed) anxiety was through the roof.
She couldn’t remember the last time she felt at peace. Her mind raced obsessively with thoughts of worst-possible outcomes, reliving past hurts over and over, and fortune-telling what everyone around her was thinking. She found herself going to dark places of imagining what would happen if her husband died, if she died, or worse if something happened to one of her kids.
The harder she tried to stop the pattern and discourage these thoughts, the worse it got. Her anxiety frequently resulted in panic attacks that would immediately shut her down for hours at a time. It became impossible for her to concentrate at work, she was neglecting her responsibilities at home, and her marriage began to suffer. With all of these burdens heavily weighing her down, as soon as a friend suggested she go into counselling she did so without hesitation.
One of my very first questions, “Who else in your family suffers from anxiety?” shocked her.
She paused for a moment and said, “My mother, grandmother, brother, nephew, and aunt.” It had never occurred to Nandita that anxiety might have been passed down through the generations. But after her therapist helped talk her through the possibility, she began to see how it could be the case. Her mother taught her to be anxious about death because her father died at an early age. Her grandmother was so anxious that she wouldn’t talk to people she didn’t know. Her brother had test anxiety, her nephew had social anxiety, and her aunt had perfectionist anxiety.
Anxiety is not the only emotion that tends to be passed down from one generation to the next. These ten emotions can be inherited through family trauma, parental modelling, and/or abusive behaviours:
▶ Anger: There are three main types of unhealthy anger: aggressive anger, passive-aggressive anger, and suppressive anger – all of which can negatively affect a child. For example, if a parent is aggressively angry by yelling, their child might grow up to mimic the same behaviour or learn to redirect it into their own manifestation of anger. The goal for the parent to prevent this is to learn to channel their anger into assertive behaviour instead, which states what a person wants or needs without being controlling, belittling, or manipulative.
▶ Shame: Shaming words from parents such as, “You will never be good enough,” or “You are stupid,” attack the heart of who a person is. Sadly enough, shaming tactics are pervasive in hyper-religious homes where a child is told that they have to live up to some unrealistic standard and very frequently are practised by the child on others once they have been exposed to such treatment. The counteraction to shame is forgiveness and acceptance, which is how a parent should approach their child to end the cycle of hurt.
▶ Guilt: Guilt-tripping is a long-standing tradition in many families. Statements including, “If you loved me you would clean the kitchen,” or “A daughter who cares about her mom calls her,” are typical examples of a parent using guilt as leverage. This behaviour, though typical, is still considered an extreme form of manipulation. Instead, state what you want with a simple explanation of why that is not designed to make the other person feel bad if they choose not to fulfil your request.
▶ Helplessness: Think of this idea as playing the role of the victim. In this instance, a parent uses their past trauma as an excuse for poor behaviour: “I drink every night because your mother left me,” or “It’s because I was abandoned as a kid that I act so crazy.” Kids, who are always looking for excuses to justify their poor choices, pick up on this and customize the trait to benefit themselves. By healthily dealing with trauma, there is no need to rehash it and continue to be a victim.
▶ Anxiety: The opening story of Nandita’s anxiety is not an uncommon one. Anxiety is a helpful emotion that is meant to be a warning light for your brain or body, almost like the low fuel gauge in your car. This feeling is only supposed to be triggered as a precursor to fear. However, some people’s anxiety misfires causing it to go off too frequently and create an unhealthy environment for the ones suffering from it and those around them. One of the best methods to help with anxiety is meditation and acceptance of the emotion. Approaching it from a point of frustration only escalates it in others and encourages them to practice anxiety as well.
▶ Insecurity: A primary developmental tactic used by children is their tendency to study their parents to learn more about themselves. The problem with this method of self-discovery is that, more often than not, the child will also absorb a parent’s insecurities. The insecurity that causes a parent to not go for a promotion out of fear can easily translate into a child who will now decide to not audition for a play. Breaking free from this unhealthy bond means identifying which insecurities are the child’s and not their parent’s, and not allowing the parent’s fear to negatively impact the child.
▶ Selfishness: This is most commonly seen in families where a child has not attached to a parent because the parent doesn’t want to or can’t attach onto their child. Trust is essential in the early stages of development and any failure to establish that causes attachment issues. In turn, these issues lead to selfish and individually centred behaviours. Creating an environment that encourages vulnerability can allow the parent to mend the rift in the attachment. However, if this doesn’t occur, it is never too late for the child to find a safe person to form a healthy attachment with to help generate that vulnerability.
▶ Criticism: Continually picking a child apart for what they wear, how they look, how they perform, or who they hang out with is exhausting. Especially when these critiques are sandwiched with, “I only do this because I love you.” For a child who grows up listening to this, being critical and judgmental of others now seems like a loving thing to do. It is not. In fact, it only succeeds in tearing relationships apart. Praise is the antidote for critical behaviour.
▶ Isolation: People isolate themselves for different reasons: fear, depression, sadness, grief, and paranoia. Instead of confronting these very uncomfortable emotions, a person isolates or hides from them. Done often enough by a parent, children will believe that this is a reasonable way of coping and doing the same once they become adults. Breaking the habit of isolation means confronting the painful emotions, traumas, and/or abuses, and no longer hiding from yourself and others.
▶ Jealousy: “Our family is the jealous type,” is an excuse that some use to justify their poor reactions of lashing out, name-calling, or picking a fight. But acting inappropriately because a person feels jealous is never an excuse and certainly shouldn’t be encouraged in children. No one wants to get hurt, but hurting others before they can hurt you is immature behaviour. It takes courage to trust and calmly approach a situation – which is the only real way to eliminate jealousy.
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