The worst thing about being an anxious parent is the anxiety about your kids.
The second worst thing about being an anxious parent is the fear that you will pass on this anxiety to your kids.
And this is a justifiable fear. Kids who grow up around anxious parents absorb their fears. They assimilate the beliefs that life is dangerous and uncertain, that there are hazards around every corner, that the world is inherently unsafe. These are the beliefs that contribute to anxiety as an adult.
I know. I have them myself.
So when I had kids I made a conscious decision to avoid passing on my neuroses to my children. It didn’t mean that I could suddenly push out my fears when I pushed out my first baby – it meant that I worked incredibly hard to manage those fears so I wouldn’t infect my kids with the same disease.
How did I do that? Well, in a few different ways, some of which may resonate with other anxious parents out there.
1. I refused to allow myself catastrophic thoughts. Simply refused. When my brain jumped to horrible scenarios (and if you have kids, you know exactly what kind of horrible scenarios I am referring to) I would say STOP. Literally. STOP. I would tell my brain to shut the hell up. I would use every ounce of will power I had to banish those thoughts from my mind. STOP, I would say. STOP. And it worked. I became practiced at barring catastrophic thoughts from my brain, which allowed me more peace of mind, and far less anxiety.
2. I reminded myself, day after day after day after day, that I cannot protect my children from pain. You can’t either. No one can. Life is difficult at times for everyone. Life brings sadness and confusion and illness and humiliation and physical challenges and rejection and despair to everyone. Without these elements, there would be no real life. But I reminded myself, too, that life brings joy and wonder and excitement and triumph and pleasure and laughter and love. My kids will experience the full range of all, and that is normal and desirable and inevitable.
3. There is more danger in wrapping kids up in cotton wool than in letting them live. We all have different standards of what is acceptable risk – I know what is comfortable for me, and that may be different to what is comfortable for you. But I do know that there are dangers inherent in nearly every element of modern life: catching the bus, riding in cars with others, going on camps, venturing out alone, staying home alone, going to parties, going online. My instinct as an anxious parent is to shield my kids from risk, but my conscious mind tells me that they need risk to grow. They cannot become independent human beings unless they are given room to make mistakes, accept challenges, push their boundaries, test their wings. And so I let them walk to the park by themselves, and hold my breath till they are home. I let them go on school camps, and trust that they will be taken care of. I teach them body awareness and assertiveness, and hope they are able to stay safe. I put their need for risk ahead of my need for protection, and pray that all will turn out in the end.
4. I look around me and comfort myself with the knowledge that every single adult I know survived their childhood. I know that tragedies occur, and it is scary and distressing. But the vast majority of children make it through. I did, and my friends did, and my kids’ father did, and their grandparents did, too. And if they can do it, the odds are that my kids will make it as well.
5. I practice saying yes. Yes yes yes yes yes. The instinctive response of an anxious person is to say no, because that is the safest response. But when you use your Yes muscles often enough, it starts to become a new habit. Kids need to hear Yes as much as they hear No. I want to be a Yes parent. And, over time, I am getting there.
Kerri is the author of The Little Book of Anxiety, Confessions from a Worried Life.