It’s natural for parents to worry, but so many parents have cornered the market on anxiety—often unrealistically. The worry list is long: abduction and abuse, their child’s friendships and school performance, online threats like internet bullying and pornography, instilling proper diet and exercise habits … and the list goes on.
In many cases, anxiety paralyzes both parent and child, making children fearful and stifling their curiosity and development.
Parental worry limits children’s opportunities to indulge in healthy activities, such as playing outside with friends or walking to school without being under a parent’s watchful eye. These sorts of restrictions prevent children from exploring their world, interacting with peers freely, and learning to take chances and risks, as well as learning from their mistakes.
The problem of parental anxiety is so widespread that it has changed the landscape of raising children. A movement has sprung up called “free range parenting” to combat the trend.
America’s Worst Mom
Lenore Skenazy explores the idea of free-range parenting in her 2009 book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). In 2008, Skenazy was publicly ridiculed for letting her then 9-year-old son ride the New York subway alone, earning her the nickname of “America’s Worst Mom.”
She took the label in stride and continues to put forth the idea that children are far more capable than most people give them credit for in a new Discovery Life Channel Reality show, “World’s Worst Mom.”
Gripped with Fear and Worry…
There needs to be a limit on parental anxieties so they don’t dominate. Parents need to give children the opportunities and freedoms to explore, be responsible, and grow independent.
I asked Alice Boyes, PhD, author of The Anxiety Tooklit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points for ideas on how over-anxious parents can modulate—perhaps eliminate—some of the fear that grips them.
8 Tips to Ease Parental Anxiety
Dr. Boyes advises:
1. Accept that you are fearful.
2. Learn the real risks and facts. "For instance, the concern that your child will be abducted by a stranger is an unrealistic fear. Of the 800,000+ missing children under the age of 18, only an estimated 115 children were the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping, that is by a total stranger or acquaintance. Arm children with the knowledge they need to protect themselves and so they can act accordingly if they feel uncomfortable. Awareness is the one constant in protecting all children against being exploited or abducted. On the other hand, it is sensible and wise for parents to be vigilant when children are near swimming pools or lawn mowers; in those situations, the high number of devastating accidents and deaths warrants parental worry. "
3. Teaching your child healthy, effective ways to cope with anxiety, without avoiding, can help both of you. "Show your child the 'steps' method of approaching an anxiety-provoking activity. This involves coming up with a series of behavioral steps to try in increasing order of anxiety, and culminating in doing the feared activity. For example, if a child is scared of a slide, then a steps approach might involve watching other kids come down the slide, climbing the steps of the slide and coming back down, and going down the slide with a parent first. You can do each step multiple times until your child is ready to move onto the next step. Make it household policy to approach anxiety-provoking activities using the steps method."
4. Try mindfulness exercises alongside your child. "For example, listening to any sounds you can hear for 30 seconds. Small, frequent doses of mindfulness will help both you and your child feel calm throughout the day."
5. Practice slow breathing when you need to reduce your physiological arousal. "Also, show your child how to do this. You can use child-friendly methods like imagining you are slowly and steadily blowing up a balloon, or blowing a bubble with bubble mixture and don't want it to pop."
6. Work on eliminating the most likely or catastrophic risks to your child. "For example, if you have pool, make sure the pool area is fenced and has a self-closing gate. Sometimes anxious parents are so worried about EVERYTHING that they get overwhelmed and don't prioritize taking care of the things that are the biggest risks."
7. Write bullet points of the pros and cons of parenting your child in an overprotective way. "This will help balance your thinking so that you consider the risks of being overprotective as well as the risks of being under-protective."
8. Confront fears with reasonable action. "For example, if you are concerned your child might have ADHD, then take her for an assessment with a child psychologist. Ask your pediatrician for a referral. Alternatively, you could call the psychology department at colleges in your area and ask if anyone in the department does research on ADHD. That person may offer assessment in private practice and, as a researcher, his or her knowledge will be very up-to-date. Doing something reasonable and practical about your fears is better than compulsively worrying or repeatedly Googling 'signs of ADHD.'"
Copyright @2015, 2019 by Susan Newman
Boyes, Alice. (2015).The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points. New York: Perigee.
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, “Key Facts about Missing Children.”
Skenazy, Lenore. (2010). Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). New York: Jossey-Bass.