While we do our best to protect our children from common stressors, our own anxiety can have a significant impact on our kids’ mental health. Research shows that anxiety is environmentally transmitted from parents to children. In fact, the way we are raised is a stronger predictor of anxiety issues than genetics. 

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on kids’ mental health illustrates just how easily children absorb stress from the world around them. Children’s Hospital Colorado has seen a spike in behavioral health visits so drastic that it’s now considered a state of emergency. With children experiencing peak levels of anxiety, it’s more important than ever for parents to be aware of how to prevent transferring stress to their kids. 

“Children are not stupid; they are very aware if mom or dad is upset about something,” says children’s psychiatrist Howard Pratt, D.O, who supervises a Children’s Crisis Center at Community Health of South Florida, Inc, a nonprofit organization. “They may not know the details or why, but kids are intuitive. They’re aware if something is eating at their parents, and it’s important to never pass that onto kids, especially if it’s a situation they can’t do anything about.” 

It’s healthy to model stress management for children, but we also want to shield kids from unnecessary anxiety that they can’t cope with. Depending on the situation and your child’s age and maturity, you may want to protect your child from whatever stress is impacting the family, or you may want to be transparent about the issue and use it as a learning opportunity. Here’s how to decide what’s best for your child. 

How to have age-appropriate conversations about stress with your children  

Children under 5

Young children can be impacted by their parents’ emotions as early as three months old and  feel the effects of ongoing environmental stress as early as six months old. But Dr. Pratt says children this age should only be informed of stress in the family if it’s unavoidable. If it’s something that will affect this child directly, such as moving homes, you have to have a discussion about it. In other situations, “The best thing you can do as a parent is keep your stress level under control,” he says. 

Still, family stress can provide teaching opportunities for very young children. For example, a busy family might ask a young child to complete some basic chores, which Dr. Pratt says is healthy if you keep your expectations age-appropriate. 

Furthermore, research suggests teaching kids about financial concepts as young as three years old. “It’s important that kids have an understanding of finance,” Dr. Pratt says. They need to understand that money is earned. Setting up an allowance is one way to accomplish this. However, they should also feel that their needs will be met, regardless of the family’s financial situation. 

Ages 5 to10

Dr. Pratt says the most important thing for this age group is for kids to see that while things are not exactly easy, the adult caregiver is able to manage stress. It’s okay to involve kids this age in family discussions and pursuits as long as you are modeling healthy stress management techniques. “If there’s anything that you can say ‘I wish I knew this when I was younger,’ those are things you absolutely want to expose your children to on an age appropriate level,” Dr. Pratt says. 

However, you should shield children this age from relationship problems. According to Dr. Pratt, you don’t want kids exposed to an unhealthy or toxic relationship because you’re teaching them that that behavior is OK. On the other hand, if a divorce is on the horizon, then that’s a discussion you’ll need to have with your kids. 

Ages 10 to 15

Dr. Pratt says this age group can be one of the most challenging for parents. “It’s a little more difficult and sensitive because they’re not going to talk to you about how they feel,” he says. “And that’s something that has nothing to do with parenting. It’s just at that age they’re establishing boundaries.” As with other age groups, keeping your own stress levels under control is essential to good parenting. 

If your stress stems from financial troubles, you need to be especially careful with young teens. It’s healthy to acknowledge that family finances are limited so they may not be able to do or buy everything on their wishlist, “but you never want a child feeling that they are an extra burden on a family because they are growing,” Dr. Pratt says. That kind of language can have a lasting effect on a child’s self-esteem.

Age 15 and older

Dr. Pratt says kids this age are already feeling enormous pressure because they’re being asked to decide what to do with their lives as adults. Therefore, it’s important to not let your own stress over things like college costs or your job influence their emotions and decisions. “Having these discussions before they become immediate is really important,” Dr. Pratt says. Do your best not to drop bombs, but instead establish an open line of communication where your kids feel safe asking questions.

As teens develop cognitively, however, they will hone their decision-making strategies, so it’s a good idea to use something like getting a car as a teaching opportunity. Using this example, teens can assess things like vehicle safety, maintenance needs and how age and driving records impact their future. As an added benefit, knowing your teen is safe and insured on the road will help mitigate your own stress.  

The bottom line

While it’s important to shield children from your own anxiety, there are certain topics you should always discuss with the help of a mental health professional, including:

  • Health issues, especially if they are genetic or could result in the parent’s death
  • Concerns over safety in your neighborhood
  • Any trauma or sexual abuse

Dr. Pratt says it’s also important to get rid of any stigma surrounding your own mental health issues. While it’s impossible to hide your emotions all the time, letting your children witness your own healthy coping mechanisms can be beneficial. If you ever react to your own emotions in unhealthy ways, use the opportunity to explain to your children how you could have handled the situation better.