Know the Risk Factors
for Anxiety Disorders
The single most common risk factor is a family history of anxiety problems.
Anxiety problems have a strong genetic component. They run in families, as do the perceptual differences and the hyper-responsive brain activation patterns found in individuals with anxiety disorders.
Is trauma a risk factor?
The vast majority of anxiety symptoms clinicians see every day are NOT caused by trauma. Some children do suffer from anxiety disorders as a result of trauma, but usually a genetic predisposition has set the stage for the anxiety disorder to develop.
Those with genetic predispositions are more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD (which involves exposure to different types of trauma) than those without the genetic leaning. In fact, scientists at UCLA pinpointed two genes that increase risk for PTSD.
Phobias (e.g., excessive fear of animals, insects, extreme weather, needle/injections, blood, natural disasters) are often assumed to be caused by a traumatic experience. In fact, this is rarely the case. More commonly, the distress a child with a phobia experiences in the feared situation is so extreme that it feels traumatizing.
Other anxiety-related disorders are also often incorrectly assumed to be the result of traumatic experiences. Trying to link past experiences to anxiety problems is not an effective strategy, and doing so will worsen anxiety problems over time.
Parenting styles do not cause anxiety disorders, but how parents respond to an anxious child can feed and maintain a child’s anxiety disorder.
Parental accommodation, in simple terms, means a parent or caregiver changes their behavior to alleviate a child’s anxiety. Examples include allowing avoidance, giving excessive reassurance, and performing rituals with a child (e.g., cleaning their cutlery when a child fears contamination, following excessive nighttime rituals, eliminating items that trigger a child’s obsession).
Research shows that the more parents or caregivers engage in accommodation behaviors, the more severe a child’s anxiety becomes. Given that 97% of parents of anxious children engage in such behaviors, it is crucial that parents identify and then gradually eliminate their participation in these behaviors.