Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Not only can parental worry be an unhappy experience, but it can be discounted and given a bad name as well. “Don’t worry so much!” “You’re such a worrywart!” And now the parent ends up feeling bad from worrying and for being a worrier. 

However, troubling as it can feel, and criticized as it may be, parental worry is not a failing to feel guilty about or ashamed of. In fact, within limits, it is functional and important to do, particularly once their child starts the journey through adolescence, around ages 9 to 13.   

As the world outside of the family circle opens up for exploration, it offers a young person older experiences and interests to try, a change which naturally gives parents more to be concerned about. For example, as the company of friends becomes increasingly important, it also becomes more problematic. “He’ll do things with peers he’d never do alone!”   

And this journey is more complicated than in the parents’ youth because today it is through two worlds, not just one—online and offline, the directly experienced and the electronically mediated, the actual, and the Internet. “For my teenage daughter, information about anything forbidden is only a click away! And since every click creates a possibly risky exposure and connection, who knows what trouble may be heading her way? It feels like I have twice as much to worry about with her than my parents did with me!”

Of course, it can become a common point of contention between adolescent and parent, the teenager complaining “You worry too much!” and the parent complaining back, “Well you don’t worry enough!” At times, each can be correct.

A parent can be “sick with worry” when it becomes a daily preoccupation. “I can’t keep my mind off my fears!” An adolescent, for want of worry, can become so wed to denial of risks for excitement’s sake that obvious dangers become ignored. “Nothing bad can happen to me!” 

In the extreme, worry can be a very challenging emotional state to manage when unanswered questions or dreaded answers instill anxiety, the afflicted person now beset by significant daily fears. As people who live with constant anxiety will tell you, this is a very painful condition both for the abiding sense of threat it brings and for the sense of helplessness to ease it down.

If either parent or teenager falls prey to this condition, get some help. A rule to consider is: try counseling before medication. And if you do get psychoactive medication, preferably do so with psychological help also in place. Medication can momentarily relieve some of the discomfort (hopefully without adverse side-effects); while counseling can teach lasting self-management education.

For example, in counseling the adult or adolescent can be encouraged to consider two questions: "What could I do to make my anxiety worse?" and "If I were not feeling anxious, how would I confidently act?" In answer to the first question, the person may identify thoughts and behaviors not to engage in because they can increase anxiety; and in response to the second question the person may discover some affirmative actions to take that can keep anxiety at bay. 

So, with the above proviso, what is parental worry and how can it be harnessed to constructive effect?

Think of worry as an act of fearful speculation that raises two kinds of questions about dangerous possibilities that might threaten their adolescent’s safety and wellbeing.

These simple questions are: “What if?” and “Just suppose?” For example: “What if my 7th-grade son’s moodiness and irritability are due to substance use?” Or: “Just suppose my 7th-grade daughter has started to dress more grown up to attract some older guy’s sexual attention?”

When worry asks urgent questions for which there are no available answers, parents can become their own worst enemies. With no solid information available, rather than rest in ignorance, “I just don’t know and that’s okay,” they can decide that baseless suspicions are better than no information at all. Proceeding to answer frightening concerns with fearful fantasies, parents can start imagining what is untrue. “When my adolescent says that nothing is the matter, I wonder if he’s hiding what I’m not supposed to know!” Protests the frustrated teenager: “No matter what I say, you won’t believe that I’m okay!”

And yet, like its painful emotional cousin jealousy, worry can sometimes be a sensitive detector, picking up on subtleties not otherwise apparent. “From what you haven’t said, I feel there may be more going on than you are telling me.” Then the teenage son reluctantly breaks silence to let his parent in.

Or consider “worry warnings” parents can give. For example, the high school daughter is picked up for a weekend outing by classmates, one of whom is unfamiliar to the mother. For no identifiable reason, this new person doesn’t feel like ‘safe’ company to the mom, so she decides to give a worry warning to alert her daughter about this possibility. “I don’t have any obvious grounds for concern, so this may just be my worry working overtime. And I’m not trying to spoil your fun or saying you shouldn’t go. But I just sensed trouble brewing with one of your new friends, and I wanted you to know. Have a good time, but just keep your eyes open, that’s all.” In some cases, a young person turns out glad that the warning was given. Returning home early, she asks her mother: “How did you know?” The mom replies, “I didn’t know; I just felt distrustful without knowing exactly why.”

It can be hard to determine when to honor or disregard whatever has set worry to wondering.

Of course, the notion of constructive worry can be a very hard sell to an impatient, impulsive, and adventurous adolescent who mostly sees it motivate protective parents to put barriers in freedom’s way. “Why should your fears rule what I do?” In response, parents might itemize some basic functions that constructive worry can perform.

Worry is concerned: it cares about what might happen.

Worry is imaginative: it creates future scenarios.

Worry is vigilant: it increases watchfulness.

Worry is proactive: it thinks ahead.

Worry is predictive: it forecasts possibilities

Worry is preventative: it avoids pitfalls.

Worry is cautious: it slows down decision-making.

Worry is protective: it creates deterrents.

Worry is warning: it identifies dangers.

Worry is defensive: it prevents accidents.

Worry is resourceful: it plans for emergencies.

Worry is responsible: it connects choices to consequences.

Worry is inquisitive: it asks “What if?” and “Just suppose?”

Worry is courageous: it dares to imagine fearful possibilities.

Then parents might recommend three functions of worry that they hope the teenager will routinely rely upon.

Use worry to Think Ahead: “Don’t get so caught up in small pleasures now that you become unmindful of the big picture later.”

Use worry to take Predictive Responsibility: “Evaluate decisions you are considering by connecting them to consequences that might follow.”

Use worry for Contingency Planning: “When taking any kind of risks, have a backup plan just in case outcomes unintentionally go wrong.”  

“For your own safety, we want you to learn to worry well. At a minimum, this means you use worry to think ahead, to take predictive responsibility, and to do contingency planning.”

Then parents can conclude: “In general, we believe it’s in your best interests to keep your ‘worry wits’ about you as you grow.” 

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving YOur Child's Adolescence (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Power of Mistakes.

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