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Anxious Parenting: Do You Worry about Your Child's Behavior?

by Debbie Pincus MS LMHC
Anxious Parenting: Do You Worry about Your Child's Behavior?

“I can’t take it anymore. My child is so disrespectful to me—especially in front of other people. I feel like a failure as a parent.”

“My teen is failing three classes. She’s throwing her life away. I’m so worried about her I can’t sleep.”

“My kid makes me crazy. He’s so angry and hardheaded. He always has to do it ‘his way,’ and then he ends up blaming everyone else when he gets in trouble!”

When you need your child to act a certain way so that you can feel calm, power struggles will undoubtedly ensue.

Does your child’s behavior, the choices he makes—and fears about how he will turn out—weigh you down, making you feel like it’s all somehow a reflection on you? When our kids don’t act in ways we think they should, it’s natural to feel anxious and responsible: we’re only human. But when we do this, we stop seeing the boundary between where we end and where our child begins—we become “fused” with them. The danger here is that the more we feel responsible for the choices they make, the more we parent them out of anxiety, which leads to that panicked “out of control” feeling and knee-jerk parenting. In effect, your parenting becomes about needing your child to behave so you can feel okay. This causes parents to hover, nag and get in their kid’s “box.” When your wellbeing lies in your child’s hands, the more invested you’ll become in him—and the more anxious you’ll feel about his every move.

Related: The key to parenting more calmly.

The behavior of difficult, acting out kids makes us all the more anxious. “How in the world,” you’re probably saying, “can I be calm when my child is swearing at me, getting in trouble at school or constantly starting fights with siblings?” Of course these behaviors make us incredibly frustrated and overwhelmed, leaving us dangling at the end of our ropes, held on by a thread. But believe it or not, there is a way to handle even acting out behavior calmly—I know, because I help parents do it every day. Remember, if you parent from an anxious place, you will have more anxious kids—anxiety is contagious, but conversely, so is calm. Even when your child is way out of control and defiant, you have to find a way to stay in control of yourself. Parenting calmly will help your child calm down and will lead you to make better decisions on how to respond to these acting out behaviors and not give your kids anything to react to.

I want to make an important distinction here: What I don’t mean by “calm” is that you should be stiff and robot-like, or afraid to tell your kids what you think and what you believe. Parents can get so caught up in doing it right that they end up hiding their real selves. What our children need is genuine, honest engagement. They need us to be separate people with our own thoughts that we communicate to them.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s say your child is refusing to do her homework. Look at the difference between these two statements that you might make:

  • “What’s wrong with you?! You’re driving me crazy. You’re going to end up like your uncle.”
  • “What’s going on with you? Your choices here concern me because I’m afraid you’re going to hurt yourself in the long run.”

The first statement comes from an anxious place: It puts blame, criticism and your own anxiety on your child, and tells her that you’re ashamed of her—and that you need her to take away that shame and anxiety. The second statement is thoughtful while also showing your true feelings. Expressing a concern like that will not only get your child’s attention, it will also show her that you care deeply. If you are emotionally separate enough, your child will usually understand that it’s an expression of your genuine love and concern for her. That’s where the real connection happens. Kids want and need us to be separate enough from them so that they can feel deeply connected to us—otherwise there is no “us” to connect to.

Related: Are you so anxious about your child that you feel overwhelmed and out of control?

Another benefit: if you are separate enough from your child, you can be honest and discuss the realities of what she can handle, talk about what the real world is like, and then state your real concerns. If I’m saying “Your choices concern me” because I’m neurotic, fearful and I won’t let my child out of my sight, then it’s not coming from a separate place. But if you are calm and separate, you can be truthful, because it’s coming from your authentic parent self—one that’s not fused together with your child.

I think the best way to explain anxious vs. calm parenting is to ask yourself these two important questions when an important decision comes up:

  • Is what I’m doing in my child’s best interest, or is it to help me feel calm?
  • Am I seeing the situation factually and objectively, or am I seeing it from my fear and worries?

Believe me, I know this is not easy to figure out all the time! The good news is that once you’re responding from an emotionally separate place—and your child knows it and feels it—they’ll be less likely to draw you into power struggles, and you’ll be able to parent more calmly.

What does it take to be able to do this? Here are four important steps you can take to begin shedding anxiety and start parenting more calmly starting now:

Don’t make your children the center of your universe. This is a big one. We all know this truth, but it can happen regardless of our best intentions. Why should we avoid doing this? It’s not good for your child or for you. Instead of having your world revolve around him, take care of yourself and your own emotional life. Attend to your adult relationships and friendships and pursue your own goals. Don’t fuse with your child, and try to stay mindful of where you end and he begins. Don’t get into his box if it’s not where you belong. This kind of over-stepping won’t sustain itself—and it won’t work for the relationship in the long run.

Pause. Make a commitment to pausing and thinking about how you want to respond to your child, rather than falling back on the old knee-jerk reaction. Again, you always have a choice on how you will behave, no matter how your child is behaving. Something you might say to yourself in order to stay calm when he’s acting out might be, “This too shall pass,” or “How can I be most helpful to my child at this moment?” or “What does my child need from me right now?” What he needs might be for you to disengage and walk away—or it might be to have some firm limits set and consequences handed out. Or it might simply be an empathetic response.

Related: How to give effective consequences and set firm limits.

Don’t need your child to validate you. If you need something from your child in order to feel validated, you will find yourself at her mercy because she doesn’t have to give it to you. When you need your child to act a certain way so that you can feel calm, power struggles will undoubtedly ensue. Instead, do things in your own life that give you a sense of validation. You might ask yourself, “What do I need in my life to help me feel fulfilled and valid? How can I work to keep myself calm and separate?”

Know yourself well. Know when your baggage is getting spilled onto your kids. Try to see them realistically, rather than from your own worries, fears and unfinished business. Deal with the problems in your life so you won’t spill them onto your kids and start over-focusing on your children.

When One Acting-out Child Commands 99% of the Attention

I understand that when you have a kid who’s acting out all the time, it’s very difficult to be calm—often, that child will suck up 99% of your time, attention and energy. My guess is that he knows how to pull you in and it’s working. When there’s one person in the family who tends to take over and ruin the mood by saying something hateful or acting out, his bad attitude can permeate everything.

Related: Do you have one child who commands all your attention with his or her acting out behavior?

It’s important to realize that there are reasons why your child is doing what he’s doing. His behavior is effective in getting a lot of focus and attention. As a system, you also have to look at how everybody in the family is contributing to keeping that status quo going. The question is not, “Why is this kid such a problem,” the real question is, “How are we all contributing to keeping this going?” Think of it like a dance—your child is trying to pull you in, but you have to find a way to stay separate and not join in. Part of the answer may be that you learn to set limits and then walk away, rather than engaging with him when he blows up, or it might be to recognize it when you pursue him with too many questions right after school and he explodes.

Again, another big part of the answer is to take care of your emotional life. If your ego is attached to how your child is behaving, you’re probably going to have a stronger reaction than if you were able to remain separate and say, “What’s going on here with my child—and what’s the best way to handle his behavior right now?” When you’re able to ask that question in the moment, you’re going to look at it from a much calmer, thoughtful place than if you allow yourself to be pulled into the bad behavior. Start small by simply pausing and looking at the situation as objectively as possible the next time it happens. Trust me, there’s a big difference between getting pulled into something without thinking, to instead pausing and asking “Why am I getting sucked in to this again?” If you can do this, you’ll likely gain a lot of self-focus as to what the dynamic is, versus simply reacting in the usual way. So get self-focused, and then start asking yourself, “What do I feel when this happens? What do I tend to do and how does that impact what happens next?”

Related: How to be in charge of your family without losing your cool.

Instead of seeing your kids from your own needs, worries and fears, work at being separate enough from them to be objective and to actually view them through clear and calm lenses. You will then find yourself parenting from your best principles and thoughtful guidance, rather than from your needs and anxieties.


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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

READER'S COMMENTS

This article is really informative, and I will definitely try some of the techniques.

Comment By : Bel

Great advice. This stuff is easy to understand but very hard to do and takes a LOT of practice. I sense a lot of 12 step program and other recovery material in this and that's great, because it works. Thanks you.

Comment By : Robert

I am currently working on this together with my daughters therapist. At our last appointment he pointed out that some times the need for validation of your child's actions takes away from solving the problem. I find myself always asking my 5 year old why she is being the way she is when I feel too overwhelmed and get angry when she always responds with "I don't know". Now it is my job to try to stop asking questions when I know I am never going to get the answer I feel that I need to hear. I will be going to my own counsellor soon too to help me work out my own emotional issues so I can stop letting it effect my relationship with my daughter, and our whole family.

Comment By : Athena

I recently stumbled across this newsletter and the articles have been so very, very helpful to both myself and my husband in parenting our almost 15 year old daughter! Thanks so much! I will continue to read these.

Comment By : Help from Gig Harbor, WA

It's so comforting to read sensible advice when you're feeling alone and in knots from a challenging child. We have been through so much with our 18 year old daughter who suffers from Adhd & Corresponding mood disorder! You easily lose sight of how to respond when you're "in it". Thanks!

Comment By : GoodPig

OMG your articles every week are amazing. Again your article makes me take a step back to look at myself and the way I parent. I dont feel that I am the only one with a child/children who are out of control. I wish schools would not put so much blame on parents for their children's bad attitudes. Thank you so much your advice is critical for a lot of people.

Comment By : sandra

Excellent counsel here. And to help us understand why we do most of the things we do, "How We Love" by Milan & Kay Yerkovich provides foundational material for gaining objectivity about ourselves. I'm reading it now.

Comment By : Julie

My Eldest Son Is Puting My Sanity On The Line I Have Requested Help From Numerous Resources n Nothing / No One Believes Me He Never Shows His Bad Side To Anyone But Me n He Treats His Lil Brother Like A Human Punching Bag n He Constantly Is Making Me Feel Like An Unfit Mother n Everyone I n He Knows Tells Him How Lucky He Is That I Bust My Hump To Make Sure He n His Brother Never Live The Life I Did Growing Up Like Going To Bed Hungry,Being Beat Just Because I Was There, Always Being Put Down n Being Kept In The House From School Or Playing Because Of The Abuse n Yet My Kids Have Never Come Across Any Of Those Types Of Neglect n Yet At 6-12 They Both Have There Own Everything n I Have Absolutely Nothing Yet I'm A Horrible Mother n He Makes Sure To Tell Me It At Least 3-5 Times A Day Im So Scared I've Lost Him He's Going Too Far n I Don't See Anything Working For Me :-( As Far As The News Letters They Work With My Lil One So Long As My Eldest Is No Where Around But Let Him Be Around n I Have No Say With My Lil One Anything His Big Brother Says Goes He's Such A Manipulating 12yr Old I NEED HELP n CAN'T SEEM TO GET IT WHAT DO I DO. By The Way I'm A Single Mother n Have Been For The Last 8yrs.

Comment By : Sam.B.

Hey thank you for the newsletter. The articles I've read so far have given in an insight of how to approach a child with difficult behaviour.Of recent my son turned 18 years old and is still in S.3. He is been having a problem with one of the teachers at school since his S.2 second term.He used to perform well but he deteriorated by 1st term S.3, and by the end of term he earned himself a suspension. Why? he was caught with a phone (illegal item), and 2. theft. He denied the charges. We sat down as family listened him out, and agreed that he goes and apologises to the teacher, to which he adamantly refused insisting he was innocent. Finally I decided to change school for 2nd term. When I informed him he looked relieved and happy. I pray this will help in behavioural change and academic performance. Thank you once again, I will keep you posted. Edith

Comment By : edith

As I read this article it sounded like it was written about me and my granddaughter(which I raised) She has been the center of my universe for 17 years and I know I have to find another direction to put my energy. On the other point, I have many times stayed calm when she gets out of control however I admit sometimes I lose my temper with her and let her pull me into an argument. I hope I remember this article when it happens in the future. Not only for on the arguments but also to find activies that will bring me fullfillment for myself.

Comment By : Frazzled

* To “Sam B”: Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. This is a tough situation. I can hear your frustration at providing everything your children want and need and not getting any appreciation for your efforts. Parenting can be a thankless job. One suggestion Janet Lehman makes in her article A Message from Janet Lehman: Does Parenting Feel Like a Thankless Job? (Then Read This.) is to first acknowledge what you’re doing right. From your comment, it sounds like you are providing a good home for your children and trying to give them a much different upbringing than you experienced. You are doing this as a single parent with limited support from outside resources. That is a considerable feat on its own. Another useful suggestion Carol Banks makes in her article The Top 5 Parenting Mistakes-and How to Avoid Them is to try not to personalize your child’s behavior. I understand this may be easier said than done. Try to keep in mind his behavior really isn’t about you but his inability to solve his problems or deal with frustration. You are doing the best job you can. I hope this has been helpful. Good luck to you and your family as you work through this difficult situation. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I am looking forward to practicing the pause and ask myself what is it my child needs from me right now? I think this objective viewpoint will be very helpful to both myself and my 15 yr old daughter.

Comment By : lisa4830

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anxious parenting, staying calm, anxiety

Responses to questions posted on EmpoweringParents.com are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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