Adolescence is a risky process because a young person must put themselves at the mercy of ignorance, inexperience, and the unexpected (not to mention the influence of peers) and dare to experiment with acting more grown up. Because they want to try new freedoms before they're ready, they learn many of their hardest lessons in life after the fact.
What makes this risk taking tolerable is excitement (about the unknown) and denial (about the danger.) Because parents do not share either the excitement or the denial, they worry. Worry comes with the responsibility they feel for the welfare of their teenager. They dearly wish her to have a risk-free passage through adolescence, but it can't be done.
The harsh reality is that their teenager can't grow up without taking risks, can't take risks without denying danger, and can't deny danger without creating the likelihood of harm. So parental worry is honorably come by. At issue is how to manage parental worry so that it doesn't become overbearing and so that can actually be of practical use.
WHAT IS WORRY?
Worry is ignorance plus anxious questions plus fearful answers. Worry begins with ignorance: "I don't know why my teenager isn't home by the time agreed upon." Ignorance is made threatening by asking an anxious question: "What if my teenager has gotten into trouble?" Jumping to a fearful answer or conclusion completes the worry: "My teenager has probably been in a terrible accident!"
Thus one formula for worry is this. Worry = "I don't know" + "What if?" + "Suppose the worst?"
To keep worry down, it helps to accept ignorance or to take action to reduce it. So say to yourself: "As a parent, there will always be infinitely more I don't know (or control) about my teenager and his life than I can ever know; but when I have a need to know that can be satisfied, I will check it out."
To keep worry down, it helps to refrain from asking anxious questions. So say to yourself: "As a parent, it is easy to wonder the worst when I don't know; but I can refuse to scare myself on behalf of my teenager. I can elect not to create fearful possibilities to consider."
To keep worry down, it helps to avoid giving fearful answers to anxious questions. So say to yourself: "As a parent, believing I should know enough to protect my child, it is easy to rely on my imagination to reply to questions when there is no factual data on which to rely. However, I can choose to let those questions go unanswered."
WHAT NOT TO WORRY ABOUT.
Don't worry about what you can't control: "What if my child should contract a fatal disease?" Let go what you can't control and save your energy to invest in doing what you can.
Don't equate worry with caring: "Well, if I didn't love you, I wouldn't worry about you so!" Driving yourself crazy with worry on behalf of your child is not an act of love; it is an act of fear. And it gives the teenager a fear-crazed parent to contend with.
Don't invest worry with magical powers: "If I just worry hard enough about you, you'll be safe." Worry for superstition's sake provides no real protection.
Don't blame your worry on your teenager: "You worry me so!" No. The decision to worry is yours alone. If you believe your teenager is causing you to worry a lot, then you will end up feeling very angry with her for controlling your fear. Your fear is up to you.
HOW NOT TO WORRY.
To make worry worst of all, a parent can "chain worry" by adding one "What if?" question to another until a mild setback now is used to predict dire consequences that doom the teenager's life later on. For example, a young person's failure on a single test leads to parental worry about failing other tests in the class. This leads to parental worry about a failed course. This leads to parental worry about failing other courses. This leads to parental worry about failing to graduate high school. This leads to parental worry about being employable. This leads to parental worry about an incapacity for self-support. This leads to a vision of the future with their child reduced to living off handouts on the street.
At this parental panic point, the teenager may provide some much-needed sanity. "Mom, Dad! All I did was flunk a major test. It happens. It's not the end of the world! I just need to recover on the next test, and I will. So cool it with the worry!" The lesson here is: keep your worries as close to the present as possible, and no further than the near future.
A PRODUCTIVE USE FOR WORRY.
Where parental worry comes in handy is in helping a teenager learn to think ahead, anticipate possible problems, and prepare contingency plans should those problems arise. Adolescent children are often focussed on getting what is wanted NOW: "I just want to be allowed to go to the mall and hang out with my friends!"
It is at this point that the conscientious parent begins to ask productive worry questions. "Before I decide, I want you to think with me about some risks that go along with the freedom you are wanting. For example, what if you get separated from your friends, what do you plan to do?"
To the impatient teenager, who wants to anticipate only pleasure, this introduction of possible problems just gets in the way of immediate gratification. "Oh stop worrying! Nothing bad is going to happen to me! Just let me go!"
But the responsible parent is steadfast: "If you want me to consider giving you new freedoms, then you have to be willing to take the time to think through with me what risks you will be taking, and how you plan to cope if any of these complications actually arise."
Even though worry can feel bad, it isn't entirely bad. Even though it can be unrealistic, it can also be realistic. In fact, constructively used, parental worry can help train a teenager to think ahead, so in that sense worry can do a lot of good.
Next week's entry: When parents envy their adolescents.