Just How Much Can You Blame Your Parents for Your Anxiety?

Mom and dad aren't off the hook.

Oct 4 2017, 3:34pm

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We've all heard of "helicopter parents"—those clingy moms and dads who hover over their kids and swoop in at the first sign of trouble. While it's hard to fault a parent for being too attentive, his or her eagerness to intercede really does seem to inflate a child's risk for anxiety down the road.

One study from the University of Tennessee Chattanooga linked helicopter parenting with higher rates of anti-depressant medication use among college-age students. Several recent studies from Neil Montgomery at Keene State College in New Hampshire have found excessive amounts of parent "assistance, problem-solving, monitoring, and involvement"—basically, being all up in a kid's business—promotes anxiety.

Why is "overparenting" harmful? "The general view is that if you've had your way at every turn, or you've lived in a world where a lot of decisions have been made for you, making decisions on your own can be stressful," says Andrew Fox, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis.

There also seems to be an inverse relationship between small amounts of early-life adversity and adult anxiety—meaning kids who have to deal with mild "challenges" may be better able to cope with stress as adults, says Jordan Smoller, a professor of psychiatry and chair in psychiatric neuroscience at Harvard Medical School.

"Our nervous system and emotion-regulation systems learn from our environment about what's dangerous, and how to regulate emotions if we are exposed to something threatening," Smoller says. "There's some evidence that without that exposure, we may not develop skills or even circuitry to manage challenges or stress."

He pokes fun at himself for invoking the old "back in my day" line. But, Smoller adds, "you get a sense form some young people that there's some vulnerability and inability to manage stress that may be in part due to not having to manage or get through some of these experiences as kids."

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For instance, he points to a lack of "free play," or an escape from parental oversight. "It's a tricky thing, because you don't want to imply parents should neglect kids or expose them to danger," he says. "But an effort to help [kids] avoid all challenge or adversity does seem like it could have some negative effects."

While certain styles of parenting may be more likely to promote anxiety in young adulthood and beyond, UC-Davis's Fox says there's not good evidence that one parenting style "uniformly" produces anxious offspring. (After all, the hands-on parents who turn one kid into a tightly wound ball of frayed nerves also often produce laid-back, calm-as-cucumber siblings.) This is where your genes enter the picture.

Fox's research has isolated some of the brain functions tied to "heritable" anxiety, and he says about a third of anxiety variation across individuals is attributable to their DNA. That one-third estimate is an average, and will be higher or lower depending on the individual. But it's clear that some people are more genetically prone to anxiety disorders than others, he says.

Smoller, too, has published work on the genetics of anxiety disorders. He says that the role your DNA plays in your risk for anxiety is not as simple as isolating a single genetic mutation. "Anxiety is a very complex condition, and many genes or variations within your genome may contribute," he explains. Basically, there isn't a test someone could run to identify if you have the anxiety gene—and there probably never will be.

Along with your DNA and your upbringing, there's a third (and obvious) factor in your anxiety equation: your present environment. Regardless of your DNA or how you were raised, if you're thrown into a chaotic or stressful environment—a war zone, say, or a job as an EMT or air traffic controller (or a server in a busy restaurant)—you'd have to possess super-human levels of calm to not respond with anxiety.

"Anxiety is a ubiquitous human experience," Smoller says. "It evolved to allow us to survive, to protect ourselves from dangers, to see threats coming, to mobilize our defenses." If you had no anxiety, you'd also likely have no drive or ambition.

There really are menacing threats in this world, adds Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology at Stanford University. Anxiety is necessary to help us confront or avoid them, and it only becomes pathological when it persists even when there is no threat, or when the cost of maintaining your vigilance against a threat is ruining your life, he says.

Put simply, some level of anxiety is a healthy, normal, reasonable reaction to modern life. It has utility, and it evolved in us for a reason. But when it comes to out-of-control anxiety, what's most to blame among your genes, your parents, and your environment? "It's really impossible to answer that," Sapolsky says.

Smoller agrees. "For any individual, there's no way to say how much of their anxiety is related to genes or upbringing," he says. Along with the sources of anxiety in your life today, all of these factors "have interplay," and don't add up to a certain number, he says. Mom and dad aren't off the hook, in other words. But they probably don't deserve all the blame.

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