Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Parenting Picassos

How parenting is an art.

Clinging child
I started working with parents of anxious children years before I met my husband, and many years before I became a parent. I lost count of how many times I was asked by my clients "Are you a parent?" I always gave my standard answer: "Not yet, but parenting is about principles, and I can help you learn some of the principles of parenting."  In some ways, I was right. Parenting is about principles—consistency, actions and consequences, and clear communication. But what I didn't realize at the time is just how difficult parenting can be—even if you know exactly what to do is in a situation, knowing is far different than doing. 

Since becoming a parent, I have had many moments when I have struggled to live by the recommendations that I have made to parents. There are times when my child had a temper tantrum, and I was so weary from balancing the demands of the day that it took ever fiber of my being not to give in to her whims. What often stopped me was my husband stepping in when I was wavering, and the advice I would often give to other parents—if I give in, I  will only reinforce the very behavior that I don't want to see, and I will have the joy of many more tantrums ahead. Other times, when my child has been frightened, I have felt the desire to have her to avoid the situation or to comfort her excessively rather than allowing her to experience the situation and the anxiety that goes with it. Despite my knowledge that facing her fears will allow her to learn how to regulate anxiety and to develop self-confidence, it was hard for me to follow-through with it, partially because of my own feelings of distress when she is upset or afraid.

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The thing about parenting is that although it is about principles, it is hard to live by those principles when there are so many competing demands, when you can't remember the last time that you had an uninterrupted night's sleep, and when it is sometimes easier to give in than to do what you know is best in the long-term. Like most things in life, it seems much more straightforward when discussing it logically and impartially within the safety of the therapy room. 

But parenting is not only about logic. It's also about being human, making mistakes and learning from them. It's about loving your child so much that you spend time thinking about the ripple effect that your parenting behaviors can have on your child years into the future and hoping that you are making the right choice in the moment. Sometimes it is about flying by the seat of your pants and hoping that you intuition about how to handle something will work. And other times it is about dissecting your parenting choices with your spouse after the fact and asking "Did we really mess that up?" It takes analysis, thoughtfulness, intuition, and restraint in addition to the principles. 

I always said that providing therapy is an art. There are basic therapy principles that you follow, techniques that you learn and teach others, and strategies that you use to try to improve the lives of others. But that isn't enough. Being a good therapist is about timing, knowing when to use a technique and when to wait, trusting your intuition about what a client needs in a particular moment, knowing when to push and when to back off. But what I didn't realize is that parenting is an art as well, and like any form of art, it takes a while to perfect it. Like most parents, I am still trying to perfect the art. I guess we're all parenting Picassos in training.

Many of my blog posts will be about the principles of parenting anxious children, parenting when you are the one who is anxious, handling interpersonal relationships and how anxiety can impact those relationships, and approaching one's own anxiety. Other posts will be about the art involved in all of this, and the struggles that we all experience in trying to apply the principles artfully. Relationships are challenging, and even more so when anxiety is thrown into the mix. But with practice, the challenges inherent in both anxiety and relationships can be tackled successfully. 

Parent and child holding hands

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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