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Anxiety

3 Reasons Parents Can Worry Less

Parents have many concerns for their children, but here’s some reassuring news.

Key points

  • Facing challenges can be anxiety-provoking for children, but it can help them develop important life skills, such as grit and resilience.
  • Children are affected by the pandemic in different ways. Focusing on areas most relevant to one's child can make concerns more manageable.
  • Parents often obsess over minutia, but many things parents worry about have smaller effects on children’s long-term outcomes than they think.

If there’s one thing parents do well, it’s worry. Back-to-school has always presented a lot of opportunities for that. Will our kids make friends? Who will they sit with at lunch? Will they like their teacher?

The pandemic has only accelerated our parental concerns, bringing new and unprecedented worries: Are the staff vaccinated? Will my child get exposed? What long-term effect is the pandemic having on my child – academically, socially, developmentally?

Because we have an entirely new set of worries on our plate, it can feel like we need to worry more about our children. But I’m a developmental psychologist, and I want to reassure you: The science suggests that we can often worry less than we do as parents.

Reasons to Worry Less as a Parent

1. Children have always faced a number of developmental challenges, and these challenges help children develop important life skills, such as resilience and grit. The nature of hardships that children face (and parents have had to navigate) changes across time and differs drastically across cultures and countries.

What a child in sub-Saharan Africa is facing may feel like it has nothing to do with your concerns about whether it is safe to send your child to school, but there’s lots of evidence that stepping back and looking at things from a broader perspective is helpful in reducing stress levels and gaining perspective. It’s an easy strategy that parents can apply and benefit from.

Children across time and around the world have experienced vastly different environments, and they have been OK. Not only that, experiencing manageable challenges is actually good for children’s growth. Navigating anxiety-provoking situations helps children learn that they can feel nervous and get through it. Life is full of challenges and events that are outside of our control or our comfort zones. It’s normal to feel anxious in those situations. But learning that feeling is normal, and you can push through anyway, is a critical developmental skill that children have to master. It teaches them grit and perseverance.

From that lens, the pandemic is providing our kids an opportunity (albeit an unwelcome one) to learn that life presents challenges, you muddle your way through, do the best you can, and come out on the other side.

2. Many of the things we worry about as parents are actually normal individual differences that exist between children. We’ve had a lot of time cooped up with our kids over this past year-plus. Very often, parents worry about whether their child’s behavior — be it their impulsivity, introversion, anxiety, or defiance — is “normal.” Because most of us don’t have a huge sample of children to observe (teachers aside), it can be hard to tell what’s normal and what is reason for concern.

But all child behavior – whether we’re talking about impulsivity or anxiety or aggression – falls on a bell curve, meaning that there are some kids who are low, many who are somewhere in the middle, and some who are high. So, by definition, it’s normal to have kids all the way across the spectrum. There’s no bright line between “normal” and disordered behavior. Even professionals have a hard time defining when something tips over to become a clinical disorder; the way we diagnose disorders, and what we consider a psychiatric disorder, has changed over time.

With that in mind, instead of asking whether your child’s behavior is normal, ask yourself, “Is this behavior causing impairment?” Is it causing problems at home, at school, or with their friends? If so, then it’s worth seeking help for your child.

The reality is that all of our children are wired differently; they all come with their unique genetic codes that influence how naturally predisposed they are to anxiety, fearfulness, impulsivity, and extraversion. How your child is wired will influence how the pandemic impacts them. We know that environmental stressors can exacerbate children’s natural tendencies. That means that if your child is naturally predisposed to anxiety, it may be more difficult for them to navigate some of the uncertainty and stressors of the pandemic. Or, if your child is naturally more extraverted, social distancing and reduced time with friends caused by the pandemic may be particularly difficult on them.

There are so many things we worry about as parents. Focusing on the particular areas that are most relevant for your child is one way to help the seemingly endless list of pandemic concerns feel more manageable. You can learn more about your child’s natural tendencies and parenting strategies that work best for different types of kids here.

3. Most environmental influences have smaller effects than we might expect. I’ve saved the biggest one for last, and it’s the one that parents often find most surprising. It feels like so many of the day-to-day decisions that come with parenting are all-important. There is an undertone of messaging to parents that suggests if you really love your child you will do all the things.

It turns out there is very little evidence that our super-parenting makes that much of a difference. Even though there are thousands of articles about the minutia of parenting, most of the things we obsess over as parents actually show very small effect sizes on their own. That’s good news for us parents. It means that there are lots of ways to be a great parent and we don’t have to sweat the small stuff — and a lot of it (more than we think) is small stuff.

I don’t mean to diminish the real suffering and trauma experienced by many families as a result of the pandemic. But when it comes to many of our day-to-day decisions (and associated worries), we parents have a tendency to overestimate how much our children will be affected.

So the next time you feel your anxiety rising, I would invite you to view the pandemic through a different lens: to step back and see it as an (unwelcome) opportunity to help your child develop grit, to teach them how to navigate difficult situations, and to focus on the long game when it comes to child development. Much of what our children need to grow and develop is hard-wired from within. We’re stronger than we think, and so are our kids.

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