There is a polarizing pressure in America, where there seems to be an understanding that human beings are more different than similar, and that these differences create more distance than closeness between people. From arguments about the symbols of the civil war in the form of statues and flags to the symbols of racial injustice to the politicians discussing revisionist histories of the United States to divisive discussions around religious and non-religious people -- a systemic anxiety has emerged in America. A recent Harris poll (2017) suggests Americans are more stressed than ever in primarily five areas: the future of our nation (63%), money (62%), work (61%), current political climate (57%), and violence and crime (51%) (APA, 2017). These issues can create communal anxiety. Anxiety moves through systems outward, downward, around and back up again. If we consider our communal system in the United States at the highest level there is the entire population of the nation, and at the lowest level the individual citizen. Near the base of the system are the families that make up our citizenry. They are the bricks that build the foundation of our nation, and they absorb the joy, sorrow and the anxiety of the nation.
Anxiety is often characterized as worry, uneasiness or tension. It has both positive and negative qualities. Some anxiety is necessary as it gets people up and out of bed in the morning. However, too much anxiety can be debilitating. Striving for something in between too little and too much is optimal. Anxiety unlike other health issues that people face is not curable, and is necessary to live. Additionally, it can often have a quality of being contagious. Within a family, anxiety will travel around the family like a “hot potato,” until one member of the family decides consciously or subconsciously to absorb the anxiety.
If the person internalizing the family anxiety has methods of processing it and letting it go or putting it into a manageable perspective, the family returns to homeostasis or functional balance. If, however, the family member does not know how to constructively process the systemic anxiety, it can cause different types of harm from physical ailments to psychological ailments. Often, the more vulnerable repositories for this anxiety are children. Children tend to absorb anxiety like sponges.
Depending on how resilient a child is can directly impact their ability to process both the systemic anxiety that is a result of society and the systemic anxiety of the family itself. Their ability to “bounce back,” can be closely related to both maternal factors, childhood traits and environmental factors (Crawford, Schrock & Woodruff- Borden, 2010). Temperament is one characteristic believed to have a biological component (Goldsmith, Buss & Lemery, 1997; Saudino, 2005; Hoekstra et. al, 2008). Some signs and symptoms that children will not process anxiety well and may internalize anxiety include:
- High emotional reactivity and an inability to regulate emotions
- Decreased attention regulation
- Parental figures who have negative emotional reactivity
- Hostile parenting and interaction styles
- Neuroticism and controlling behaviors
Environmental Influences within the family
- Marital discord
- Parental conflict
- Lack of family cohesion
- Poor communication within the family
- Misunderstood family roles
- Affective expression and responsiveness to family members
Children with these symptoms and systemic factors can tend to internalize anxiety and can manifest the expression of this anxiety in the following ways:
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty separating from parents at appropriate times
- Inability to express feelings or overexpression of feelings/ explosiveness
- Disruption at school
- Negative change in grades
- Unusual fears or hallucinations
- Fighting at school
- Controlling their environment through intake of food and cutting behaviors and other self-injurious behaviors
- Compulsive behaviors
- Obsessive thoughts
What parents and other caregivers can do to address systemic anxiety
- Conduct exercises with children that are grounding. These include: take off our socks and shoes and walking around in grass, yoga, meditation and mindfulness exercises and prayer for those who are more spiritually inclined.
- Limit exposure to negative news stories.
- Limit screen time for children and social media.
- When a child acts out, listen to what the behavior is attempting to communicate. Behaviors are meant to communicate something. Children with anxiety may have difficulty articulating their feelings and thoughts. Pause and listen to what the behavior is attempting to communicate.
- Talk to your children and ask questions that require your child to think. Instead of asking how was your day? Ask your child what was your high point today or what was your low point?
- Reinforce positive behaviors and avoid rewarding negative behaviors with repeated attention.
- Look for patterns in the environment that may hold the behaviors in place. People, time of day and repeated activities can establish patterns that hold the anxiety in place. Changing the pattern even a little can help change the level of anxiety and individual feels and ultimately change the system. One small change to a system changes the whole system.
Treatment for systemic anxiety affecting children can include both individual and family therapy. Improvements in family functioning through reducing caregiver stress can influence the success of outcomes for anxious youths (Schleider et. al, 2015). If your family or someone you know is struggling with systemic or individual anxiety in their social or family relationships a marriage and family therapist can help. Too much anxiety can have physical and psychological consequences. Finding a balance for our families can be crucial to contributing to a better society.
American Psychological Association (2017). "Stress in America: The State of Our Nation." Stress in America™ Survey.
Crawford, N. A., Schrock, M., & Woodruff-borden, J. (2011). Child internalizing symptoms: Contributions of child temperament, maternal negative affect, and family functioning. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 42(1), 53-64.
Goldsmith HH, Buss KA, Lemery KS (1997). Toddler and childhood temperament: expanded content, stronger genetic evidence, new evidence for the importance of environment. Dev Psychol 33:891–905.
Hoekstra RA, Bartels M, Hudziak JJ, Van Beijsterveldt TCEM, Boomsma DI (2008). Genetic and environmental influences on the stability of withdrawn behavior in children: a longitudinal, multi-informant twin study. Behav Genet 38:447–46.
Saudino KJ (2005). Special article: behavioral genetics and child temperament. Journal of Dev Behav Ped 26:214–223.
Schleider, J. L., Ginsburg, G. S., Keeton, C. P., Weisz, J. R., Birmaher, B., Kendall, P. C., Walkup, J. T. (2015). Parental psychopathology and treatment outcome for anxious youth: Roles of family functioning and caregiver strain. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83(1), 213-224.
Heather Laird PsyD MFT, is the Director of the Center for Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology at the University of Southern California. She is also Managing Director of HRL Consulting, LLC., and hosts Muslims and Mental Health on YouTube. She has been an adjunct professor for TCS in Public Health since January 2017 with her home department as Marriage and Family Therapy. She was a 2015-2016 AAMFT Doctoral Fellow of the Minority Fellowship Program and a 2016-2017 Albert Schweitzer Fellow. She has been awarded the Global Psychology Award (2015 & 2016) and the Community Partnerships Award (2016). She serves on several committees and community boards in Los Angeles and around the world, notably as a steering committee member to the first World Congress on Muslim Philanthropy in Istanbul.