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The Invisible Transfer: How Parental Anxiety Affects Teenagers

Raising a teenager is akin to walking a tightrope. Striking the right balance between guidance and freedom is an ongoing challenge, exacerbated by the invisible burdens we sometimes unwittingly pass on to our young ones: our anxieties. Research suggests that the emotional state of parents, particularly their anxiety, can have profound effects on their teenagers. But how does this transfer occur, and what are the implications?


The Contagious Nature of Anxiety

We've all felt it - the palpable tension in a room after an argument or the contagious nature of a friend's nervousness before a big event. Emotions, especially intense ones, have a tendency to ripple out and influence those around us. As Dr. Tessa Roseboom, a researcher from the University of Amsterdam, points out, "Humans are social beings, and they are greatly influenced by the emotions and behavior of those around them" (Roseboom, 2018). This phenomenon is even more pronounced in close-knit relationships, such as that between parent and child.

Teenagers, despite their quest for independence, are particularly susceptible to the emotional states of their parents. They're at a stage where they're actively shaping their identity, often relying on their parents as primary emotional barometers. Thus, if a parent is chronically anxious, the teenager, consciously or unconsciously, picks up on those cues.


The Transfer Mechanism

So, how does this transfer of anxiety manifest? The mechanism is twofold: behavioral modeling and emotional attunement.

  1. Behavioral Modeling: As per *Dr. Eline Möller's study, parents who display anxious behaviors act as role models for their teenagers. These behaviors can include excessive worrying, avoidance of certain situations, or verbal expressions of fear (Möller, 2020). Teenagers, in their formative years, may interpret these behaviors as appropriate reactions to stressors and start emulating them.

  2. Emotional Attunement: The emotional bond between parents and teenagers can lead to what psychologists term as "emotional contagion." This means that emotions, like anxiety, can be 'caught' from one person to another (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1993). It's an unconscious process where individuals sync their emotions with those around them.

The Risks Involved

The transference of anxiety from parent to teenager is concerning for several reasons:

  1. Mental Health: Elevated levels of anxiety can lead to mental health disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, or even teen depression. As teenagers grapple with their own set of challenges - from peer pressure to academic stress - added parental anxiety can exacerbate their emotional turmoil.

  2. Impaired Decision Making: Chronic anxiety can cloud judgment and decision-making abilities. For teenagers, who are still developing these skills, the influence of parental anxiety can lead to poor choices, avoidance behaviors, or unnecessary risk aversion.

  3. Strained Relationships: The emotional strain can hamper open communication between parents and teenagers. Teens might feel they cannot share their concerns, fearing they might add to their parent's worries. This can create distance and misunderstandings.

In Conclusion

Being aware of one's emotions and their potential impact on teenagers is a significant step towards nurturing a healthy emotional environment at home. It's essential for parents to seek support when grappling with anxiety, ensuring they provide a stable emotional foundation for their young ones.


Sundance Canyon offers free consultation to parents. Most parents we help have a better knowledge of what next steps to take, if any, to intervene on behalf of their struggling teen. Call us at 866.241.3234 OR go to our CONTACT US page.

References:

  • Roseboom, T. J. (2018). The importance of the developmental origins of health and disease concept for public health policy. Frontiers in Endocrinology, 9, 12.

  • Möller, E. L., Majdandžić, M., & Bögels, S. M. (2020). Parental anxiety, parenting behavior, and infant anxiety: Differential associations for fathers and mothers. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 29(1), 88-100.

  • Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current directions in psychological science, 2(3), 96-99.

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