Can You Pass Anxiety Onto Your Children?
Sophie was a single mother in her twenties. She came into counselling believing that it is normal to check and re-check windows and door locks dozens of times before retiring at night. She would leave a trail of obstacles such as roller skates and squeaky toys “in the path of intruders.” Sophie slept lightly and dreamt darkly. She left the bedroom door open so that she could keep a watchful eye on the top of the stairs.
Sophie was in a relationship, but was not willing to allow her partner of three years to stay over at her place. Kieran was a gentle soul who would call round early to help with breakfast, return for dinner and leave at around 10pm. Once he was back at his mum’s, the couple would hold long mobile phone conversations from under their separate duvet covers.
Not surprisingly, Sophie’s two daughters presented as highly anxious at primary school. They refused to attend after-school clubs or travel in the minibus. This suited Sophie, though she was not entirely conscious of the fact.
An escalation of difficulties with her older daughter, Abi, brought Sophie into counselling. Abi started to scream, kick and bite her mother in a bid to stay in the car at the school gates. The breaking point was when she physically attacked the stern headteacher when he tried to intervene. Sometimes, mortification is the mother of therapeutic necessity.
Over the course of several months, Sophie gradually relaxed her security routines. The shift was possible because she was able to acknowledge that her own childhood home had not been safe from intrusion and harm. She worked on her memories, beliefs and feelings about this, realising why she would be prone to catastrophic thinking and vigilant behaviours. She wept when she realised that being fearful and braced against attack was not everybody’s daily experience. We worked through the scars of her relationship with her ex-partner, the father of her girls. The relationship had mirrored some of the frightening aspects of her childhood and was responsible for her refusal to trust Kieran enough to stay over.
There were tears for lost time when Sophie truly understood that her own children were not at risk, because she was a good and protective parent. She couldn’t wait to come and tell me the first time she allowed Abi and Isabelle to hold hands and take a birthday card to the post box on the street corner.
There were broadly three positive outcomes to this piece of counselling; freer, outgoing children, a mother who had come to terms with her violent past, and a mother who was proud of creating a loving and secure home where her children could flourish.
I bumped into Sophie at the health centre where we'd worked a year later. We had a quick chat, laughing as we recalled an ill-timed fire alarm interrupting our first meeting. She told me that the family had just returned from a holiday (by train, she wasn’t ready for planes just yet), that she was training to be a midwife and that she had set a date to marry Kieran.