Anxiety is often thought of and talked about on an individual basis. But, entire families can experience anxiety together. These can be divided into two types of anxiety: family anxiety and anxiety that is precipitated by one person but bleeds into the entire family system.
Beginning with the former, family anxiety simply means anxiety that permeates through the whole family. It occurs when everyone is anxious about the same thing, but the anxiety can come out in different ways and each person can feel anxiety differently. Usually, family anxiety is sparked by an event, experience or time in a family’s life. This can include moving, divorce, loss of a family pet, adoption, a new member of the family, or illness and/or injury.
For example, a family is moving to a new part of the city. Moving is stressful for everyone and relocating brings a whole lot of questions for the family. Children wonder who their friends will be in a new school, while adults are curious about the length of their commutes. While some moves don’t necessarily rock the entire family with anxiety, some can, especially if they come with a lot of changes (new jobs, schools and friends), no social support outside the family, or financial shifts (gains or losses). The instability of moving can cause anxiety family-wide, especially when no family member leads in addressing what the family is going through and what they need.
Another case of family anxiety might be caused by the adoption of a new family member. While this can be incredibly exciting, there are also a lot of unknowns. If the child is suddenly there, both parents might be scared of losing them or getting too attached. The family, though excited in public about the new member, might, in private, feel uneasy negotiating new roles and attaching to this new person. If there are older children, they might feel unsure about their positions in the new family structure.
Individual Anxiety Can Also Affect The Family
In addition to family anxiety, individual anxieties or anxieties felt between two members of a family can affect the family as a whole. This occurs particularly when the family cannot separate the individual anxieties from the family unit. In this case, anxiety has a ripple effect causing the entire family system to experience anxiety.
For instance, Mom starts dating again after a divorce. She might be nervous about these new relationships and reentering the dating world. Her big and little kids might pick up on this anxiety and start acting out before dates, making her even more anxious.
This anxiety might also be felt between several members, but bleeds into the family as a whole. Say a 6-year old has recently been diagnosed with dyslexia. They changed schools and now feel anxious about their diagnosis. The parents also feel anxious socially about the diagnosis, worried what others in their social circle might think. Moving schools also means a change in social circle for the parents. Meanwhile, their 11-year old picks up this anxiety from the rest of the family and becomes even more worried about his or her school performance and grades.
Whether Family Anxiety or Anxiety That Spreads Through The Family, It’s All About How The Family Leads
Both types of anxiety can be relieved by dealing with it as a family. The main difference, however, between these two types of anxiety is how a family leads in addressing it. If an individual is experiencing anxiety, the family needs to slow down and say, “Hey, you’re anxious and we can help.” The different members of the family can, then, help the person feel validated and less alone with the anxiety.
If a parent starting to date again has anxiety, for example, it’s important to help kids know what is happening. The entire family can come together to discuss boundaries and rules so everyone knows what to expect. Or, for a kid moving to a new school, it’s important to normalize that anxiety and collectively talk about this adjustment and what the kid, parents and siblings need to normalize this process.
By noting how an individual’s anxiety is coming out in their family relationship or how they themselves are affected, the anxiety has space to not be hidden. It, instead, is acknowledged, avoiding exacerbating the situation. However, if the family is not actively addressing the individual’s anxiety and is, instead, ignoring it or transferring it to others, then it will likely permeate the entire family and get worse for the person from whom the anxiety originated.
Intervening in Family Anxiety
Meanwhile, if a family is suffering from family anxiety, the family–or a family and their therapist–needs to note that the entire family is feeling anxious about something. In a sense, the whole family needs to verbalize and relate together about the event that is making them feel anxious.
When moving, for instance, families need to be clear about why the move happened in a language the whole family can understand, noting what is especially hard about the move, what each family member needs to feel supported and how to create this. Similarly, in the case of adoption, talk as a couple and family about why the adoption is happening and bring the kids into the process. Address the hard parts about bringing someone new into the family and recognize the nervousness everyone feels.
Often a leader, like a parent, needs to come forward and say, “We all feel anxious about this. That’s okay. Let’s talk about it and talk through how we can address it in our family in a way that helps us not hide or ignore the anxiety.”
Therapy Can Help With Anxiety In The Family
Granted, this leadership role is sometimes easier said than done. Therapy can help a family or parents take leadership around family anxiety and individual anxiety permeating the family by giving families the tools of language, play and practice.
Sometimes, this therapy just includes the parent or parents coming in and asking for a therapist’s help on how to raise and talk about these topics both within the couple and in the family. They learn how to create a space where they can freely voice their own worries, fears, anxieties, concerns and messiness about a topic. Then with the therapist, the parent or parents can practice having this conversation at home so they can take it on without their own anxiety.
Alternately, families who may not know how to have the conversation could come into therapy together. In this case, the therapist leads and creates the first steps of opening up the conversation on the event(s) making a family anxious.