Parents' Anxiety Affects How They Talk to Their Children

Anxious mothers use more future than present tense with their children.

Posted Oct 02, 2019

According to the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS), the lifetime prevalence of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is 5.1%. It is almost twice as common in women than men, 3.6% vs. 6.6%. The main feature of GAD is excessive uncontrollable worry. Worry is a primarily verbal mental process with low image frequency which engages many linguistic brain areas.

Patients with GAD have a low threshold for perceiving events/situations as threatening. They readily perceive things around them as stressful or threatening. Thus, their daily life is replete of opportunities to worry. They also worry about a wide-range of topics. Their worries are often diffuse and abstract. Fuel is added to worry in the presence of uncertainty. This phenomenon has been described as low tolerance to uncertainty or intolerance of uncertainty.

Parenting provides plenty of uncertain situations, stress and worry. Do patients who suffer from GAD parent differently than the ones who do not? One study (1) examined how anxious mothers talk to their children. 19 mothers with GAD were compared to 22 control mothers without GAD, along with their children- 3-5 years old. Each dyad (mother-child) were asked to engage in free-play for 10-minutes. The interactions were videotaped and mothers’ words were transcribed.

The study controlled for many demographic factors. Researchers utilized a prediction model to search for what predicts GAD diagnosis in mothers. They found that the higher use of future tense and lower use of present tense increased the likelihood of being diagnosed with GAD.

Why would patients with GAD use future more than present tense? Using future tense separates them from the concreteness of the present moment. In other words, this is a cognitive strategy to avoid potential threat/stressors in the present moment. The children of mothers suffering from GAD observe their mothers’ worry episodes. They also might get less exposure to processing in the present moment.

The mother’s focus on the future compromises what the present interaction with her child might offer. So, when the child accomplishes something, or does something cute, or wants attention, the anxious mother might be distracted by future-oriented worry thoughts. Thus, the child might be deprived from compliments, rewards, comments related to their actions in the present moment.

One type of learning occurs when correlating our present behaviors with their consequences, know as operant conditioning . Children look for immediate consequences to repeat rewarded behaviors and avoid non-rewarded behaviors. The distance between behavior and consequence might be too large or non-existent in children of anxious mothers who are too consumed with future worry.

Fortunately, anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Women tend to sacrifice for those around them. Many women do not have time, access, or money for treatment. Learning how the anxiety disorder interferes with relationships with loved ones would build motivation to seek treatment or help. If you are a mother suffering from GAD:

  • Seek out treatment
  • Learn more about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (lots of available online information for the public)
  • Be intentional about being in the present moment
  • Record a 10-minute conversation with your child, count the ratio of present/past tense use
  • Set alarms to remind you to be in the present moment
  • Practice relaxation exercises
  • Mindfulness meditation is excellent for learning how to be in the present
  • Write a short story with your child about what is happening in the present moment
  • Paint a picture with your child about how the present moment looks

Anxiety disorders can interfere with many aspects of the patient's life. Anxious mothers might not maximally benefit from rewarding relationships such as parenting because of their excessive uncontrollable worries. Some of the fruits of successful treatment for anxiety disorders is that patients begin to enjoy these types of relationships and benefit from them.


Geronimi, E. M. C. & Woodruff-Borden, J. (2015). The language of worry: Examining linguistic elements of worry models. Cognition and Emotion, 29, 311-318.