Written by: Dr. Fiona Zandt, Clinical Psychologist

One of the games I love to play with families in therapy is the Yawn Game. I often introduce this by explaining I am curious about how feelings might work in the family and would be interested to see if we can play a game to explore this. We sit in a circle and I ask someone to start, explaining that their job is to see if they can make anyone else yawn just by yawning themselves. We take it in turns to be the person who starts the yawning and notice what happens as we engage in this game.

Usually the yawns are very catchy and it’s a great way of opening up the conversation about how we catch each others’ feelings. If you are working online you can still do this, just ensure that everyone can see the person who is trying to start the yawning. Sometimes therapists worry about what happens if the yawns don’t catch. In this situation families usually end up giggling, which is equally contagious and also works well to demonstrate the point.

And the point, while simple, is an extremely helpful one for parents to understand. Namely feelings are very contagious and often family members will catch each others’ feelings. We commonly see anxious children trigger anxious feelings in their parents and see the impact as the worry catches to other family members. Similarly, we see children become dysregulated when they sense their parents are anxious.

The field of interpersonal neurobiology is constantly contributing to our understanding of why this happens and parents may be interested in hearing a bit about the science behind this. For most parents however, having the experience of seeing yawns or giggles catch in their family is enough to illustrate this point and support them to think about how this impacts on their day to day interactions.

Catching children’s feelings is useful for parents. It engages them and helps them to understand how their child is feeling. All too often though, parents catch their children’s anxiety without ever realising that is what has happened. They can respond in an anxious or angry manner, often further dysregulating their child in the process. Similarly, often parents are unaware of the impact their own anxiety can have on their children and identify the child as the one with the “problem” without seeing the broader context. Understanding how catchy anxiety can be and being mindful when you have caught it can make a big difference to families.

We know that anxiety tends to run in families and anxious children often have anxious parents.  There is likely to be an impact of genetics, as well as of environment. And, perhaps most importantly, the responses we elicit in others when we are worried are likely to play a role in how anxiety develops and is maintained. Given this, the onus is on us to incorporate parents and families when working with children. Parents who are better able to recognise and manage their own anxiety are better placed to be able to co-regulate their children. Ideally we want parents to experience the benefits of catching their child’s anxiety, to be aware of this process, and to be able to regulate through this so that they can best support their children.

One of the great things about working with parents and families is that we have the opportunity to develop a support system around children that reinforces what they learn in sessions and helps them integrate this into their day to day lives. Often working in this way also has a positive impact on other family members. Working with the parents and family therefore is more likely to lead to longer lasting change for children with anxiety.

If you are interested in learning about other activities to help you in your work with anxious children and their families check out our new book, Creative Ways to Help Children Manage Anxiety. It includes lots of practical tips for working with parents, too. You can also check out our free resources and sign up to receive our blog posts at https://childpsychologyworkshops.com.au.

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