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Dads Worry Too

Dear dads: Arguments with your teen could be rooted in anxiety.

Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock
Source: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

Although, as a culture, we often stereotype moms as the parents who are anxious about their teen's future, the reality is, fathers have anxiety about their teen's prospects too. Whether it's related to academics, sports, or having the "right" friends, fathers also fear that internal or external factors will block their child from success—they just may be less inclined to recognize and call it anxiety.

When I work with fathers who frequently argue with their teen, they often say (loudly):

  • " He/she's gotta learn x about life!"
  • "She/he is going to need x to succeed!"
  • "I'm just trying to protect him/her from x!"
  • "I'm just trying to prevent x from happening to her/him!"

They see themselves as the rational problem-solver in the family, the one who speaks decisively about the best path their teen should take to succeed. They love their teen and express their love by trying to guide them to excellence. But when that teen doesn't follow their advice, the dad becomes increasingly frustrated, even angry, although they wish they didn't. What they don't realize is that the anger and frustration they feel are protecting them from a deeper, more uncomfortable feeling: anxiety, a feeling they may have been taught isn't appropriate for a dad to have.

As a dad, they do a lot of cheering on their teen from the real or metaphorical sidelines. As much as they wish they could take their teen's test, write their essay, or run their race for them, they can't. Even though they know rationally that they can't control everything that happens to their child, they try. So, when their teen has challenges or makes decisions the dad believes will lead to failure, they become anxious, and that anxiety can manifest as frustration and anger.

What these dads don't realize is that recognizing and acknowledging their anxiety will actually help them feel more in control. The more they can identify their feelings, the better equipped they'll be to make parenting decisions with less conflict and more certainty.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, rather than fighting harder and louder to be heard by their teen, their best strategy is to step back and ask themselves, "What is my greatest fear for my teen in this moment? Is that fear driving my anger and frustration?" If the answer is yes, anxiety is rearing its head and interfering with the productivity of the conversation.

This isn't about blaming dads or telling them to go to therapy and dive into their deepest childhood memories. It's about encouraging them to be compassionately self-aware that they are feeling anxious about how their teen's life will turn out. Understanding how anxiety is weakening their communication is the first step.

When their teen isn't listening to their parenting advice, a reptilian part of the parent's brain turns on and activates the fight-or-flight response. By recognizing and using words to label what they are feeling (e.g., "Whenever my daughter says she wants to take a gap year, I feel anxious"), the parent's brain will be forced out of fight or flight, and into a more rational mode.

You could say that labeling feelings strengthens your brain's power. For example, if you want to run faster, you'll create a workout that addresses your quadriceps and the muscles around them. Similarly, if you want to communicate more effectively with your teen, you need to use an array of parts of your brain, not just the part that feels frustrated.

Similar to how strengthening more muscles prevents injury to your body, accessing more neurological resources in your brain can prevent injury to your relationship with your teen. It allows communication to originate from a more balanced place.

It's completely natural and appropriate for dads to worry about their teen's future. They love them! Once they recognize that their love and fear have become entangled, and that anxiety is at the root of their conflicts with their teen about their future, they'll become the dad they want to be.

More from Dana Dorfman MSW, Ph.D.
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More from Dana Dorfman MSW, Ph.D.
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