Little research exists about the contagious nature of childhood anxiety. Most research has looked at parental anxiety and its effect on children. Those studies suggest that the children of mothers who suffer from anxiety are at higher risk to be anxious as well, indicating that anxiety is contagious.
While there are few studies looking specifically at childhood anxiety in terms of being contagious, there are other studies that look at it from a social perspective. From these studies, one can project that anxiety in children could be contagious.
Anxiety in Terminally Ill Children
A 2010 study in Pediatric Blood & Cancer, showed that grieving parents of children who died from a terminal illness had higher rates of anxiety themselves. The more difficulty the child had sleeping, or the more depressed or anxious he was during the last month of their life, the more likely the parents suffered these same symptoms after the child's death. The study suggests that a child's mental distress can be passed to the parents and therefore, more effort needs to be made to provide mental health support to terminally ill children and their bereaved parents.
Separation anxiety is common among preschoolers and primary grade children. This type of anxiety is usually short in duration and leaves no lasting impact on the child or parent. But a child exhibiting clinginess and crying during school drop off, can increase their parents' anxiety as well. Parents fear being judged or criticized either for not being firmer or more compassionate. In cases in which separation anxiety is frequent in the child, the anxiety in the parent can begin to build even before the child exhibits behaviors, such as during the drive to school.
Social Group Anxiety
Research out of Tel Aviv in 2010 showed that in groups, levels of anxiety are equal among members. Although the study didn't use humans and was looking at the impact of danger in a social situation such as an earthquake or terrorist attack, it does show that in groups, anxiety is the same among its members, whereas when they were alone, the levels of individual anxiety differed. This suggests that members of the group are affected by each other's anxiety. Indeed, Michael Grose, a parent educator in Australia indicates that both parents and children can feed off each other's anxieties. Daniel Greenburg, the author of child rearing books, reports this effect is highest among people who have deep emotional bonds, including siblings and families.
Cyndi Sarnoff-Ross, a marriage and family therapist, reports that to a certain extent, the ability to be affected by other people's moods, including those of children is important. She states that this ability helps with communication and in developing social skills. This is particularly important for parents because children and teens aren't always able to articulate their feelings. Being able to intuit how children are feeling helps parents know what to do.
What Parents Can Do
But parents can't allow themselves to be drawn in by their child's anxiety or teen angst. It's one thing to be able to assess a child's anxiety and another to succumb to the mood. Sarnoff-Ross suggests getting away from the source of stress, but that is not always possible with children and teens. So parents need to be aware of their stress levels rising as the result of child anxiety and make a conscious decision to not be pulled in by it. While a child's anxiety can spread to a parent, the opposite effect can occur as well; a calm parent can reduce the anxiety of a child. For this reason, parents need to stay calm and model coping behaviors to help children learn to overcome their anxiety.