- Anxiety disorders in children, teens, and adults are worrisome and affect about a third of the population.
- Tracy Dennis-Tiwary argues that the real problem is not the anxiety itself, but rather our attitudes toward anxiety.
- Parents can help their children, and themselves, welcome anxiety as a spur to achievement and creativity.
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary is a psychologist, parent, and neuroscientist making headlines with her new book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad). I love this book and recommend it enthusiastically to anyone feeling anxious about their life, their child, or the state of the world.
Although it’s not explicitly written for parents, it applies brilliantly to parents’ worries, especially the extra stressors experienced by parents of exceptional kids, whether gifted, developmentally delayed, learning disabled, or otherwise neurodivergent.
About 20 percent of American adults–more than 60 million people–are diagnosed with anxiety disorders yearly. Women are almost twice as likely to suffer anxiety disorders, a growing problem among teenagers and children.
Dennis-Tiwary points out that it's a mistake to see anxiety as the problem. Instead, the problem is caused by the thoughts and behaviors we use to cope with anxiety: “It’s not that we’re in the midst of a public health anxiety crisis,” she writes, “we’re in a crisis of the way we cope with anxiety.” Future Tense is a book that challenges widespread misconceptions and shows how people’s lives improve when they learn to see anxiety as beneficial rather than troubling.
Hope and Anxiety: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Dennis-Tiwary argues that hope and anxiety work in tandem to keep us going with the focus and energy we need to work toward what we want. If you’re a parent, anxiety can help you overcome exhaustion and other obstacles, motivating you to act in ways that support your child’s best development. If you didn’t worry about your kid, would you take such good care of them?
And there are many good reasons to worry about your child. In addition to all the other concerns, by age 18, 33 percent of American young people have been diagnosed with a serious anxiety disorder.
What Can You Do About It?
- First, take care of your mental health. If you are overcome with worries about some aspect of your child’s activities, needs, or behavior, don’t let your excessive anxiety impede the possibilities of your child’s enjoyment, success, or confidence. See a therapist, talk to an expert, practice mindfulness, or do what’s needed to achieve a reasonable degree of well-being.
- Resist medication if possible. Although the pharmaceutical industry has benefitted enormously from (and helped cause) the pathologization of anxiety, it’s not usually a good idea to take a pill to make it go away. Try these other strategies first.
- Don’t try to save your child from anxiety. The fact that anxiety disorders are so widespread among children and teens doesn’t mean you should protect your child from anxiety—quite the reverse. Your child needs to experience the discomfort of anxiety and do the work necessary to get through it to be stronger for the next challenge. The only way your child can build resilience, which they’ll need to live a happy, productive life as an adult, is to persevere through the worrisome times and learn that they’re up to the challenges that life will inevitably bring.
- Don’t deny or discount your child’s anxiety. Sometimes parents try to soothe their child’s anxiety by telling them there’s nothing to worry about or that they’ll do just fine if they stop worrying. That usually makes things worse. Respect your child’s feelings about the upcoming exam or a new activity as valuable information you can work with.
- Provide only age-appropriate support. It’s not easy to get the balance right, but do your best to give your child the minimum support possible so they can experience the sense of fulfillment that comes from independent accomplishment. That’s the source of true confidence going forward, but it often means suffering through your parental anxiety as you watch them stumble and pick themself up again.
- Look for creative opportunities amid challenges, both for yourself and your child. When our backs are to the walls one way or another, creative possibilities come to mind. Dennis-Tiwary argues that anxiety is necessary for all creativity: “Anxiety is a wellspring of creativity because it is uncomfortable…Turning our backs on anxiety means turning our backs on possibilities.”
- Welcome anxiety. Look at your own anxiety and your child’s as something to explore, discuss, and struggle through. Your relationship with your child will be strengthened and enriched if you can be honest with each other about your difficult feelings, including anxiety. You’ll also be surprised how helpful your child can be in thinking up creative solutions to the problems you’re grappling with.
- Consider Dennis-Tiwary’s three principles for coping constructively with anxiety: (a) Anxiety is information about the future. Listen to it. (b) If anxiety isn’t useful, let it go for the moment. (c) If it’s useful, do something purposeful with it.
Such a surprising and liberating idea, welcoming anxiety. Future Tense does for anxiety what Carol Dweck’s Mindset did for achievement: it provides an evidence-based convention-busting set of understandings with the power to enrich and transform people’s lives.