Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Anxiety and children: What can parents learn?

Blog post written by Lily Mailler.

“Becoming a less anxious and more thoughtful parent goes beyond technique and changing others”

In a recent talk I attended at a local school on ‘Anxiety and children’ the presenter, Associate Professor Jennifer Hudson, shared with the audience some interesting research findings and observations. Here are but a few of the one’s that caught my attention:

  • In the next decade one in four children will experience emotional disorders.
  • There has been a two fold increase in anxiety symptoms in children in the last 20 years.
  • Doing too much for your child or being overprotective is likely to result in a more anxious child.


At the end of the session parents asked questions about how to prevent anxiety symptoms in their children and about how to assist an already anxious child. Some of the parents were wondering about genetic predispositions to symptoms and difficult behaviours, whilst others enquired about why in a family of three kids, two of them display no symptoms whilst the third child does, despite the fact that they all share the same parents.

Similarly, in therapy, I often talk to concerned parents who, despite their efforts to be the best parents they can be, are struggling to manage a ‘difficult’ child. These parents are often at a loss to understand why, when seemingly all their children have been given the same parenting approach, this particular child is a ‘problem’. Parents’ explanations go from “he seems to have been born with his grandfather’s/ aunt’s…… or whoever they want to blame it on ………… anger/ rebelliousness /   stubbornness” or “he/she suffers from the middle child syndrome” or “this child was difficult from the time he/she entered the world”

During this particular talk, Associate professor Jennifer Hudson reported  her findings on a 10 year longitudinal research study which looked at factors likely to predict anxiety in preschool to adolescent children. She found that “parents who sensed that their child was anxious were more likely to help and make it better and not let the child learn to handle the situation on their own”.  During the talk she commented that “If parents help more at preschool age, the child will have more anxiety later” she further stated that “we have become a risk averse culture and that is why we are becoming more anxious, we are trying to protect too much”.

During 1950’s and 60’s, whilst researching families with a young symptomatic member, Dr Murray  Bowen observed the emotional interdependence between members of a family. Through his Family Systems theory, Dr Bowen described how this interdependency, if sufficiently intense, could in time contribute to symptoms in one or more members of the family. Professor Hudson’s findings seem to lend support to Dr Bowen’s theory.

Some of the suggestions Professor Hudson offered were:  do not do too much for your child, do not praise or reassure them too much, do not criticize them or label them, let the child struggle with challenges, encourage your child to be brave, to practice; encourage them to come up with their own developmentally appropriate solutions and strategies to resolve problems. Get the child to take small steps, the children will get your attention and approval which is good for them. Do not ignore their fear or when they are feeling nervous because that will not help them regulate their behavior. Do not criticize them or label them as ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’. Look for patterns of avoidance.

Professor Hudson also mentioned some tips to build children’s resilience i.e. listen and acknowledge their fear, encourage brave behaviours, be a coping model i.e. show it is ok to be scared and to make mistakes. Keep feelings in check, learn to tolerate your child’s distress, help them overcome fear by encouraging them to face situations that are causing the fears and, particularly with adolescents, talk with them about their thoughts and how fear driven versus realistic these may be.

Amongst all the suggestions she gave to the parents, a couple stood out for me i.e. keep feelings in check and learn to tolerate your child’s distress. The idea that it is beneficial to the child if the parent regulates their own emotionality in their relationship with their child is not new to those of us who follow Dr Bowen’s ideas; the challenge with these two particular suggestions in contrast to the others is that they require the parent to begin to focus on working on changing themselves versus focusing on changing their child.

As a parent of three now young adults, I have found keeping a focus on myself a very challenging task, in the face of challenging situations for them or what I may perceive as possible challenging situations, my tendency has been to jump in with advice or to make unnecessary comments about their behavior. In response my children have reacted by distancing, doing the opposite or reluctantly following my advice and later doubting their ability to make sound decisions. Keeping a focus on myself has required me to calm my distress in the face of their distress and let them face the consequences of their actions, it has also required me to withhold unnecessary comments about what they should and should not do and instead be clear about what I will and will not do. As I began to do the work of regulating myself and using a Bowen lens of self in the system to understand my behaviour, I slowly came to realize how my intense focus on my children (which intensified after marital separation) prevented me from looking at my unresolved issues in my relationship with my ex-husband and how these were tied up to my unresolved issues in my family of origin.

Becoming a less anxious and more thoughtful parent goes beyond technique and changing others; it is slow work and requires a good understanding of one’s immaturities, if one is to regard immaturities as that part of us that is more automatic, inflexible and reactive. This is followed by the work of learning to regulate these immaturities in order to make space for more thoughtful behavior and thus lessen their contribution to the functioning of future generations.

Dr. Michael Kerr sums this nicely with the following statement:

“The current societal regression is characterized by an increased child focus in the culture…A more constructive direction would be for people to examine their own contribution to societal regression and to work on themselves…” Kerr 2003

Upcoming Workshops with Lily Mailler

Lily Mailler will be re-running parenting courses for therapists next year as well as Family of Origin groups for helping professionals.

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1 Comment

  • Vivian Grice
    on October 30, 2014

    Ours is an anxious, risk-averse era, with transmission of this anxiety to our children being so easy and common. Ironically this transmission often occurs because our own over-functioning and protectiveness as parents, efforts designed to shield our children against real, perceived or imagined risks and challenges. This is a useful blog about how to protect, shield, protect and help our children less, but stand a greater chance of having children who are more resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.

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