As a parent, you naturally worry about your child’s future. It’s part of being a parent, and it makes sense. A healthy dose of worry motivates you to set limits and keeps your child safe and on the right track.
Nevertheless, too many of our worries are excessive and just don’t make sense. Especially when we worry about what our child’s behavior today will mean for his future five, ten, or fifteen years from now.
We’ve all been there in one way or another. Perhaps your daughter seems unmotivated at school and fails algebra. You suddenly worry that your daughter’s whole future is in jeopardy. What will she fail next? What if she never graduates from high school? Will she ever be able to get a job if she stays unmotivated?
If your child is unmotivated, disrespectful, or doesn’t make friends easily, then you probably have similar thoughts about how your child will fare in adulthood.
In your mind, you see today’s problems as a preview of things to come. And you worry that your child will struggle as an adult.
In psychology, this is called futurizing, and it’s one of the most negative and potentially destructive things we can do as parents.
Futurizing is having an unrealistically negative view of what the future holds for your child. It’s a tendency to expect the very worst outcome.
Futurizing is what psychologists call a thinking error, and it is very common. What is a thinking error? A thinking error is a faulty pattern of thinking where what you think doesn’t match reality. Your thoughts are distorted. And with thinking errors, the distortion is virtually always negative. In other words, your faulty thinking makes things out to be worse than they really are.
We all do this. For example, we overgeneralize and view a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
Or we magnify the importance of a particular event and think, incorrectly, that we are doomed forever if it doesn’t go well. Indeed, failing a class is a problem that needs to be addressed, but it isn’t the end of the world for your child.
Or, and this is particularly destructive, we label our child by his actions. For example, instead of saying “my child failed algebra,” we inaccurately say, “my child is a failure.” Indeed, just because your child failed a class or a grade does not make him a failure. It simply makes him someone who failed a class or a grade. The distinction is important.
And here’s the kicker: when we make things out to be worse than they really are, we start to cause more problems. Indeed, our thinking errors make things worse.
I’m not saying that you should ignore or not worry about your child’s problems. Instead, I’m saying that worrying about the future is not the same as recognizing a legitimate problem and putting a plan into place to help your child. We should recognize today’s real problems and address them. That’s fine. It’s obsessing about an unknown future and not having confidence in ourselves and our kids that is the problem.
Excessive worry about an unknown future makes you anxious, and your anxiety hinders your ability to solve problems and to help your child solve problems. How? It makes you more judgmental and critical and promotes catastrophic and extreme thinking. You stop thinking clearly. And instead of focusing on the here-and-now and doing the next right thing for your child, you focus on a dark and distant future that you feel helpless to change.
Although it is the anxiety talking in these situations, the danger is that you start to believe your anxiety, and you respond to it as if the dire future you imagine has already come true.
Parents and kids have enough real problems to work on each day, and so it doesn’t help to add a bunch of imagined future problems to the mix. Doing so makes it harder to deal with real problems. This is the most insidious aspect of thinking errors and anxiety.
Yes, the problem you worry about becomes a bigger problem precisely because of your worry.
I once worked with a mom with low self-esteem who worried that her child would grow up and have low self-esteem as well. So what did this mom do? She overly praised and doted on her child with the hope that her child would feel good about herself.
Despite the mom’s best intentions, her child grew up dependent on constant praise and attention from others, and, as a result, her self-esteem didn’t develop.
Sadly, this was precisely what her mom was trying to prevent. In worrying so much about her daughter’s self-esteem, she likely made the problem worse.
If this mom focused on the present, she would have been less anxious and better able to see her child objectively. She would have understood her daughter’s needs better.
Putting a plan into place that will help your child in the present will do her—and you—the most good.
So stop using all your energy worrying about your child’s future. Instead, concentrate on what’s happening with him right now. You might not feel great about his behavior, but it’s a lot more manageable than trying to troubleshoot his entire life from where you stand now.
Remember, you don’t need to feel bad about something that might happen way down the road. Just focus on the road in front of you.
Remind yourself that kids grow, change, develop, and mature. And your child will too. Kids are a work in progress. Therefore, don’t project your child’s current state to the future. It’s just not that simple.
Are you the same person you were at age twelve? Or at age fifteen? We change, and so do our kids.
Kids need guidance and direction, but proper guidance comes from clearly seeing what they need today so that they can do better tomorrow.
James Lehman, creator of The Total Transformation® child behavior program, says to act “as if” with your child. What this means is that you act as if your child behaves responsibly. Start expecting that of your child, and you might see a change in his behavior.
Ask yourself, “What do I see and hear, what is in front of me, what are the facts?” Try to see things as objectively as you can.
Keep in mind that the way you see your child might be more about you than your child. In other words, we often see what we want to see or expect to see.
And understand that we all suffer from confirmation bias—the tendency to interpret new information as a confirmation of what we believed all along. If we believe our child is irresponsible, then even if he is responsible nine times out of ten, all we count is the one time he is irresponsible and use that to confirm our belief that he is irresponsible.
Also, examine the fears and concerns you have about yourself. Try to understand who you are and why you focus on particular issues. This will help you to know when you might be projecting something about yourself onto your child.
For example, if you experienced trauma as a child, then you might tend to be overprotective of your child. Or, if you feel that you did not reach your potential, you may push your child too much.
Try to be self-aware and realistic. And know that your child is not you.
How do we stop worrying? How do we get control of our anxiety? If you find yourself worrying excessively about the future, stop and ask yourself these questions:
By pausing and honestly asking these questions, you can stop the worry about the far-away future and focus on the actionable problem in front of you.
Include in your life the things that will lower your anxiety and help you to live in the present. You might take a walk, pray, do yoga, or sit in the sun for a moment clearing your head.
Taking care of yourself will help your personal growth, and it will help you to know where you end and your child begins. Defining yourself and being securely planted in the present will allow you to raise kids who will thrive in the future.
Stay in the present. Focus on what is actionable in the near term and trust that your child will grow and change. And trust that your parenting will grow and improve.
Congratulate yourself for seeking help by reading this article. And don’t be afraid to seek out additional help, whether it be from friends, a counselor, a parent coach, or a child behavior program such as The Total Transformation.
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.