A few weeks ago I taught a parenting class at Highland Park Presbyterian Church where I made the claim that many of the anxieties that children experience are due to issues within the family and marital unit at large, rather than just in the individual kid.

This isn’t just my own belief, but something I learned in graduate school as I studied Murray Bowen and his ideas around the Nuclear Family Emotional System. In the Nuclear Family Emotional System one of the relationship patterns are “impairment of one or more children.” When this pattern is in work it looks something like this:

The spouses focus their anxieties on one or more of their children. They worry excessively and usually have an idealized or negative view of the child. The more the parents focus on the child the more the child focuses on them. He is more reactive than his siblings to the attitudes, needs, and expectations of the parents. The process undercuts the child’s differentiation from the family and makes him vulnerable to act out or internalize family tensions. The child’s anxiety can impair his school performance, social relationships, and even his health.

This is not just a graduate school theory with no application in the “real world”, but is something I see everyday in my work with families and in my teaching. I would say that probably 8 out of 10 adolescents who are brought in to see me by a parent to “fix” or help them “work through their issues” are usually just the symptom bearers of the anxiety that is present in the marital unit or in the larger family system. It just so happens that one way a couple deals with their own anxieties is to place it upon a child (most of the time unconsciously) within the family by focusing all their attention on that child and the various things they are dealing with. Focusing on children is one way that couples in an unhappy marriage manage the anxiety that exists between them.

Here is a good example of a case study taken from Michael White and David Epston’s book, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.

“John and Wendy made an appointment with the intention of addressing concerns that they had about their son’s ‘irresponsibility.’ Joe, 16 years of age, had, somewhat reluctantly, conformed to their wishes for him to accompany them. However, he did not agree that his parents had good reason to be concerned about him. In fact, Wendy and John’s decision to make the appointment had confirmed for him what he believed to be the problem all along — his parents’ excessive ‘nagging’ and ‘hassling’ of him.

Attempting to sidestep this unproductive dispute over how the problem was to be defined, I asked John and Wendy what they thought might happen if things did not change. In response, they talked at some length about how anxious they felt about the likely quality of Joe’s future. I then asked how this anxiety was organizing them around Joe’s life. It was encouraging them to watch over him more closely and, in various other ways, had them centering their lives around Joe’s. ‘What effect was this anxiety having on Joe’s life?”
Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends by Michael White and David Epston.

When parents begin to take responsibility for their own anxieties, it is amazing to see how the anxiety that is often manifested in a child soon begins to disappear.