Is your anxiety causing your child's anxiety?

anxiety Jun 14, 2024

How many times has a therapist or a well-meaning friend casually floated the idea that perhaps your anxiety is the root cause of your child’s “anxiety” (e.g. PDA)?

I cannot overstate how devastating and debilitating this is to hear for a parent of a Pathologically Demand Avoidant child or teen.

Especially when the parent is working their butt off and dedicating 99.99% of their life force and energy to offer their own nervous system as the primary accommodation to their PDA child or teen. (Regardless of whether or not you are new to this concept, I have found that many parents have been doing this intuitively before their PDA awareness, but have been doubting themselves because of outside judgment.)

I remember how it felt when someone pointed out that maybe my anxiety caused my son’s problems and even burnout. It was like a punch to the gut.

Yet on a deep intuitive level – and even though my PDA son Cooper was my first child – a part of me knew it wasn’t actually true, which is why I kept searching and searching for answers.

For another logic.

For another way to make sense of my son’s struggles.

There was a part of me that sensed this was not the logic of what was going on, but I couldn’t help but feel intense guilt for my own genetic coding and anxiety.

I was diagnosed with panic disorder at 26 while living in New York City and attending (my first round of) graduate school. Although I learned to manage it through yoga, lifestyle change, therapy and medication, having a PDA infant who couldn’t be soothed or put to sleep sent me right back into panic attacks, a maternal mental health outpatient program at Georgetown and a post-partum OCD diagnosis.

Looking back, with healing, insight, and the bird’s eye view of working with 100s of parents (often moms) who have similarly sensitive nervous systems like mine – ranging from anxiety to PDA nervous systems themselves – I have realized that it is important to pick this apart a bit to relieve ourselves of blame, shame, and guilt.

First, we have to look at the direction of causality and distinguish it from correlation. Yes, many, many parents of PDAers are extremely anxious, but this is not the cause of a neurotype and nervous system disability. I believe that PDA is genetic and that a human is born with it – even if it is fluctuating and we don’t see the big behavioral indicators of it right away (nervous system stress is cumulative).

It makes sense through the lens of genetics that you AND your child would have sensitive neuroception and nervous systems, even if you are not autistic or PDA yourself, BUT that's very different from the notion that after your child was born your anxiety impacted them to the point of disability.

Second, how could a parent NOT have anxiety when their child is having a panic response to invisible stimuli and then all the strategies suggested seem to make things worse?

When their teen is talking about self harm?

When their child is running out the front door towards traffic?

When their daughter stops eating and gets diagnosed with ARFID or anorexia?

When their child suddenly stops sleeping or has a toileting regression out of nowhere?

When the parents are blamed for their child’s disability and made to feel like they are crazy?

Anxiety is a natural human response and the causality arrow can point in both directions.

But let’s go even a little deeper into understanding how our *energy* affects the neuroception of threat for our PDA children and teens (and spouses, parents, siblings, or whoever in your family tree might fit the PDA neuroception description).

I have found through my relationship with my son that yes, there are times when he senses my anxiety and it *can* activate his threat response, but often when I simply use a declarative sentence to name the actual cause – “mommy had a hard day at work today” or “I am having a migraine, it’s not about you,” he decouples the sense of threat from himself. I have no agenda or expectation of him, I am simply experiencing my own sense of nervousness or threat that is separate from control of him or his behavior.

The area where PDA children and teens *DO* perceive threat is very, very specific.

It is not my generalized anxiety that is causing his “anxiety” (e.g. neuroception of threat), it is when my energy, intention, agenda or expectation is specifically related to wanting him to do something or control his behavior or who he is in the world. Why? Because this is a subtle form of me energetically putting myself in the position of “authority” or the “decider” which is perceived by his PDA brain as a loss of autonomy and equality on a subconscious level.

This is a very important distinction to help you go deeper in supporting your PDA child or teen so they can experience felt safety in the home AND for you to release guilt about the fact that you may be – and continue to be – an anxious person (welcome aboard my friend, lol).

Let’s take a subtle example that often confuses parents. This was asked about in this week’s Q+A and spot-coaching call in the Paradigm Shift Program:

Why does my child constantly ask for praise (Look at what I drew! Did you see that I put this away? Look at my outfit! I closed the refrigerator door for you!), yet when I initiate unsolicited praise for doing something, they start equalizing (e.g. “That is a really nice drawing!” response: shut up! It’s stupid, I’m stupid).

This very common example illustrates the logic of what is actually causing what is labeled as “anxiety” by many professionals.

First scenario: the PDA child asks for signals of safety, to be seen, to be witnessed, and for one on one attention and therefore they have control and autonomy. Their nervous system is regulated. They solicited your feedback and you provided. Result: no nervous system activation and therefore no equalizing.

Second Scenario: The PDA child did not ask for feedback. Parent provides praise in a way that is potentially unexpected and results in a perceived loss of autonomy. Result: Activation. Now here is the kicker and where we get into energy and perceiving things on a subconscious level. Often, the parent is praising an activity or a behavior that they would like to happen again (the child is reading, doing a math problem, bringing their plate into the kitchen, or being nice to their sibling).

What is the energy around that? Expectation, hoping the behavior can continue, subtle agenda even if we as parents aren’t fully aware of it. Result: nervous system response to the perception that there is a loss of autonomy and equality. Equalizing. 

There is absolutely no judgement here. I have done this a million times and have had to work to understand the “deep why” behind why praise is solicited sometimes and rejected others. I have also had to do some deep work around my own need for controlling outcomes, certainty and predictability.

This is not about you causing activation because you are a human who gets anxious and nervous, or is maybe neurodivergent themselves.

It is about a specific type of neuroception that we can actually identify and work with to mitigate our kids and teens spending most of their time in the “survival brain.”

This is really good news.


This logic shows the following:

  • It’s not your fault and you didn’t cause your child’s PDA.
  • It’s OK to have your own anxiety and nervous system responses. You are human. You can still do a great job of accommodating and change the trajectory of your child and family’s life.
  • We can get laser focused on the root cause of our child’s nervous system activation and work to reduce it over the long term. This will support their mental and physical health, your relationship to them, and the behavioral expression of their disability.

This is the long game my friends and I believe in you and your child. Deeply.

With much love for your child and your own (sometimes anxious) nervous system.


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