Sometimes we parents don’t think we are anxious because we are not trembling in our boots. Often there is no visible sign of how anxious we are. Yet when we look inside our heads, we notice that we spend a lot of time thinking about our kids—sometimes scary thoughts about things that haven’t even happened. These “awfulizing” thoughts can sound something like this:
“The best way to know if you are parenting from fear vs. facts is to ask yourself if there is any evidence of what you are so worried about.”
- “He didn’t do well in school last year; I’m afraid this year will be worse.”
- “I wasn’t crazy about the kids she was hanging around with last year; I can only imagine who she will be hanging with this year!”
- “How is she going to handle all the increased pressure of being on the varsity team? She will never be able to do it.”
- “My son always lies to me. He reminds me of my delinquent brother who’s done nothing with his life. Is that going to happen to my son too?”
It’s natural to want to protect our kids from what might happen or to try to make sure nothing bad does happen. And funny as it sounds, our brains are actually comforted when we think up every worst-case scenario and then worry about them. We think that somehow if we just worry enough, we can control things and make them go right. But fretting about the future, about the unknown, can cause extreme thinking, stirring up our fears, imaginations and projections. “He will never…She always… He’s a loser…” No surprise that this causes our (and everyone else’s) anxiety to skyrocket which causes us to—guess what… worry more! It’s an unending negative cycle unless we can get control of our anxious and awfulizing thoughts.
When parents get caught up in this negative cycle, we often find that we are spending much of our energy directing, lecturing, hovering, cajoling or nagging instead of connecting with our children. We get so frantic about “fixing” things that we are not able to see we are parenting out of fear rather than from a calm, realistic and helpful place. We lose track of the facts about our children and see them from the lens of our anxieties, often stemming from our own unfinished business. Maybe we didn’t do well in 7th grade or felt left out of the popular group. It’s normal to want our kids to do better than we did and not fall into the same holes. But it can be hard to see that perhaps that’s not where they are headed.
Until we can recognize and name all this awfulizing as anxiety and reactivity rather than the actual facts about our children, we will not see our children clearly and therefore not be able to give them what they actually need. We worry and awfulize, rather than guide. In order to see our children as they are, not how we wish them to be, we need to calm our anxiety down first. Calm is contagious – calm parents raise calm children.
Easier said than done? For sure! After all, we are only human. But it can be done. Here are some tips to being a less anxious, calmer parent.
- Know what you can and can’t control. Control battles can be over many things, like friends, school, and even food. Is it possible to provide healthy foods in your house? Yes, that is something a parent can do and be responsible for. But can you make your child eat them? Maybe, but at what cost to you, your child and your relationship? Anxiety about their health might compel you to “make” them eat those vegetables but that might only land you in a battle of wills that becomes less about the vegetables and more about “you don’t control me.” Put your efforts into what you have control over and let go of what you don’t. Accepting that you can’t possibly control every outcome will help you feel calmer. And you will be making the space your kids need to learn to be responsible for their choices.
- Know the Difference between Fear and Facts. The best way to know if you are parenting from fear is to ask yourself if there is any evidence of what you are so worried about. You might worry that your child is unhappy. Write down the evidence that backs this belief up. For example, he cries every day or he used to be very talkative but now he is quiet and withdrawn. If you have facts to back up your concern, determine useful next steps to attend to the problem. Maybe talking to him or to his teachers or school counselor would be a good first step. But if you find no evidence to back up your awfulizing thoughts then recognize this is about you, not him. Get off of him and on to yourself. Pay attention to your own unfinished business of the past or feelings you had when you were his age. Understand what is getting triggered in you when you see him. Does he remind you of your troubled sibling at that age? Where does your imagination take you? In other words, find the source of your worry so you don’t confuse yourself with your child. Facts help us to stay calmer.
- Ask Yourself: What Are You Really Anxious About? One of the ways adults manage anxiety in our important relationships is to deflect onto our kids. Let’s say you feel emotional distance in your marriage. Rather than address the problem directly with your spouse, you might instead get overly focused on your child. You might see problems in your child that barely exist but become exaggerated in your mind. This gives you a place to focus the intense emotions not being dealt with in your marriage. A child is an easy target to place the focus on. It’s normal to want to avoid the hard stuff between you and another person and bring in a third, like a child, to reduce the intensity. However, it doesn’t solve anything. It increases anxiety and we end up trying to “fix” something that isn’t the problem. Attending to the actual problem will calm us down and help our life function at its best.
- Focus on Yourself. “How could I possibly focus on myself? I have 3 kids, a job and a million things to do!” Focusing on yourself does not mean not taking care of your responsibilities. It does mean finding a way to make you a priority as well. If you don’t care for yourself, you won’t be able to take care of the kids, the house, your job. Focusing on yourself means knowing where you end and your child begins. You are not one, but two. It means developing yourself, your adult relationships, your goals and aspirations. Doing this will help calm you down because you will be in charge of your own life rather than living in reaction to everyone around you. Not everything in your child’s life is your “job”! And if your children see you taking responsibility for managing your life, they will learn to manage their own responsibilities and feel free to develop their own life.
- Stay in the Present. When you find yourself thinking up “what if” scenarios about your child, bring yourself back to the “now”. Ask yourself if there is anything now, right now, that would be helpful to do or say that would aid your child both now and in the future. This will help you calm down and give your child what she actually needs. Try this simple exercise. A “what if” anxiety creeps in: “What if my daughter doesn’t pass her history test?” Bring yourself back to the present and ask yourself:
- What are the facts suggesting to me that she won’t do well? Her last test score was low (fact).
- Is my concern based on facts or fears? I’m also worried because I struggled in history at her age (fear).
- What would be helpful to do now to help her do the best she can on her test? I can have my other kids, who don’t have a test tomorrow, play outside so she can have some quiet study time.
- Is my plan realistically taking into account what is my responsibility and what belongs to my child? What I can control and what I can’t? Having the other kids play outside is an appropriate responsibility as a parent—something you can control. Can you make her do well? No. That is in her control and is her responsibility.
We all worry because we love and care so much about our children and wish to protect them from life’s struggles and disappointments. But you will feel calmer when you gently remind your intense loving emotions that trying to do what is not possible only increases anxiety. Instead THINK about and act on the things that are possible, reasonable and realistic for you to do for you and your family. You will become calmer and your life and theirs will function better. Functioning better helps everyone feel calmer and feeling calmer helps everyone function better. You have changed the cycle into a healthier and less anxious one!