From the moment you see two lines on a pregnancy test, the anxiety starts.
Am I really pregnant? What if I’m a terrible parent? What if the baby’s sick? What if I don’t know the best way to prevent bullying when they’re in second grade?
And the worries just intensify after they’re born.
Parental anxiety is a real and difficult issue for many parents with children of all ages, but luckily, there are proven strategies that can help.
Picture this: It’s the first day of school, and you’re having worse separation anxiety than your kid.
Maybe you’re imagining them needing you or not being able to get the help they need. Or other kids picking on them on the bus. Or the teacher not appreciating their fun quirks or personality.
These are all valid fears that can overtake you when you’re having parental anxiety. Parents going through this may experience the following:
You may demonstrate shielding and avoidance behaviors
If you find that you’re trying to prevent anything negative from happening to your child at every turn, you may be trying to “shield” them from harm. And avoidance behaviors involve specifically removing yourself or your child from situations that you find fearful.
For example, you may refuse to let your child ride the bus out of fear of bullying — even if bullying isn’t a known issue on your area’s school bus.
We all want to protect our children, and fear is normal. But when it becomes a constant, it can be a sign of anxiety.
You may engage in anxious talk
If you find yourself having conversations about your fears within earshot of your kids, you may underestimate how much they can hear you and internalize their own anxiety.
You may quickly move unlikely situations from a possibility to a probability
When you start thinking of tragic events — school shootings and pool drownings and the like — as probabilities, you may have parental anxiety.
You may not have your own life outside your kids’ problems
If your child’s minor argument with their BFF consumes your own thoughts and worries, you may be in an unhealthy place mentally and emotionally. (That being said, no one wants to see their child unhappy.)
You may spend an excessive amount of time researching parenting questions
Are you awake at 2 a.m. with your phone under the covers, googling the best glass bottles so your child doesn’t get cancer?
Are you spending weeks agonizing over which water bottle they should have for their lunch box, or whether the growing pains in their legs are a sign of something more serious?
These are valid concerns (with sometimes contradictory answers), but if they’re consuming your time, you may be dealing with parental anxiety.
Are we really more anxious as parents than other generations? Or has the internet just given a voice to the fears parents have already had for centuries?
Probably a little bit of both. We do know that certain risk factors contribute to anxiety:
- a personal history of mental illness
- shyness or behavioral inhibition in childhood
- stressful and negative life or environmental events
- history of anxiety or mental illness in other relatives
- physical conditions that can aggravate anxiety symptoms (for example, a thyroid issue)
- overcomparing with other children to see if your child is “normal” or is meeting milestones
One of the most difficult effects for anxious parents to consider is whether their own anxiety is rubbing off on their children. Scientists are torn in this regard, as anxious parents do tend to provide very safe and loving homes to children.
But researchers also acknowledge that these anxious parenting characteristics tend to counterbalance negative ones.
It’s important to remember that our kids inherit more than just our physical characteristics — they can also inherit our anxiety.
Whether it’s inherited literally (through genetics) or learned throughout childhood, there’s no doubt children pick it up.
Finding relief from anxiety can help ease these effects.
Accept that you’re fearful, and learn the real risks and facts
It helps to start by acknowledging your fears and learning the real risks and facts.
In our bus bullying scenario, network with other parents and be open about your fears. If you hear that bullying hasn’t been a problem, consider that it might be unlikely for your child, too.
If you’re worried about a school shooting, talk to a school administrator about what plans the school has in place for such an event. This will help put your mind at ease more than envisioning what could happen.
Facts can combat fear.
Expose yourself to your fears to conquer them
Research suggests that “exposure therapy” — which involves incrementally experiencing the things you’re afraid of to be able to deal with them — may be an effective anxiety management technique here.
This doesn’t mean you should throw your child onto a busy highway to get over your fear that they’ll be hit by a car. But could you teach them how to ride in a bike lane near or on the side of the street (depending on their age and ability) and then supervise them doing so until they’re ready to go solo?
Get professional help
Therapy can be one of the most effective treatments for anxiety, even more so than medication in some cases.
(It’s important to note that study participants in the case were dealing with social anxiety disorder.)
This advice is everywhere, and you may even be sick of hearing it. Exercise solves problems. But are you taking it seriously?
Are you moving your body and monitoring the effects this has in the long run on your parenting anxiety?
According to to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, regular exercise can lower stress and improve low self-esteem and mood. And all it takes is about 5 minutes of aerobic activity to jump-start the anti-anxiety effects.
Talk to other parents
Commiserate with other parents and your fears may feel more justified and manageable. Be that parent that pushes past small talk into real topics that matter.
Take concrete steps toward preventing catastrophes
It can really help to know you’re doing something. Once you acknowledge these deep fears you have about your children, make a list of things that could actually prevent them.
For instance, if your neighbor’s pool is stressing you out due to it being a safety risk, what steps can you take?
You could talk to the neighbor about fencing in the pool (which they should have already done in most places anyway), or about purchasing a lock for their gate.
You may want to invest in swimming lessons so you know your kiddo will be safer if they find themselves in the water.
Confide in your partner, in private
We’ve established that children can become anxious when you’re anxious. Talk to your partner — or a trusted friend — openly about your fears.
Just make sure it’s out of earshot of the kids. Even if you think they aren’t listening from the next room, they are.
Remember to breathe
Parenting is tough. In anxiety-inducing situations, try to stop and count to 10.
After some deep breathing, say something positive to your child, starting to replace your anxious thoughts with calm meditations that will help them gain strength and positivity in their own lives.
Deep breathing and meditating have long been used to ease our flight or fight response to difficult situations.
Call your doctor or a mental health professional immediately if you’re having suicidal thoughts, or are considering harming your children or others.
In addition, contact your doctor if you’re having physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, or your anxiety is so difficult to live with that you can’t engage in everyday tasks such as caring for yourself and others.
Parenting anxiety doesn’t have to be your permanent state of being. By integrating some researched-backed tips — and by utilizing the help of your support system and medical professionals — you can work toward becoming the calm and happy parent you want to be.
Never be afraid to get help. This parenting gig is tough, and there’s no shame in needing more support.