While I have found ways to sidestep having panic attacks in front of my two boys (“Our legs work—let’s take the stairs!”), my pervasive, lower-grade anxiety has been a bit more insidious. I cringe remembering a conversation I had with a friend while we were watching our young kids play at a park one afternoon: Our 4- and 6-year-olds started to climb a tree, but I nervously called mine down while my friend allowed hers to explore. She saw the joy and adventure; I saw the potential trip to the emergency room.
As a means of excusing my uptightness, I tried to explain to her that, in my head, I was constantly working through all the potentially dangerous outcomes of any seemingly fun activity: Was this the kind of thing that could end in a broken wrist? A concussion? Worse? She listened to me and nodded politely, but never stopped her kids from playing. They eventually climbed back down when they realized my kids couldn’t join in the treetop fun.
I spent years learning how to deflect accusations from my kids that I never let them do anything. “I love you too much to let you get hurt!” was my battle cry. But when my younger son was in fourth grade, he finally called me out on my rationale. “Mom,” he argued, “I hate how I don’t get to do the fun stuff that my friends do because you’re always afraid something’s going to happen to me. But even when something bad does happen to my friends, they’re not like, Oh no, I broke my wrist! I’m never going to be okay again! The just get a cast and get on with life.”
He was right. While I was keeping my kids very safe, I had been depriving them of some of the golden experiences of childhood—climbing trees, for example, as well as running amok in the neighborhood without adult supervision. I could blame it on where we live (in a fairly bustling suburb near a metro) or on the fact that lots of the parents in our neighborhood seem to impose similar restrictions on their children (or perhaps those are just the parents I gravitate toward?). But the truth is that my anxiety was often at the helm of my parenting decisions. Even when the risks were minimal, I wasn’t willing to take that gamble for fear that my kid would end up being the one on the news that evening.
Finally, when my older son—whose height had already begun to eclipse my own—expressed concern about walking around our neighborhood without an adult because he was worried that something might happen if I wasn’t there, I realized that my protective instincts may have slid squarely into the territory of doing more harm than good. I had to backpedal hard and fast.
Lara Doyle, a mom of three boys who has a family therapy practice in Falls Church, Va., helps explain how shortsighted my type of protective parenting strategies can be. “Kids who grow up in a household with parents who are dealing with significant anxiety always run at a higher set point—not at a calm, content place, as they should,” she explains. In other words, I might be protecting them from a broken wrist but setting them up for a lifetime of anxiety.
Not only do these kids end up with higher stress levels from constantly living on high alert, Doyle says, they also don’t get a chance to experience the world in normal ways, the way kids of non-anxious parents are allowed to. “Anxious parents hold their kids back from even reasonable risk-taking: riding a bike, going out without sunscreen slathered on, exploring the woods. The message kids get is that the world isn’t a safe place and you always have to be on high alert, which triggers their brains to release a constant stream of stress chemicals. They never learn that our natural state should be calm and relaxed.”
Children of parents who have anxiety are also at a higher risk for a similar diagnosis—both through nature and nurture, according to Doyle. “Parents don’t want their kids to have to go through the same struggles they’ve dealt with, so when an anxious parent sees their kid exhibiting signs of anxiety, the first thing that parent does is try to stop it.”
But coddling your kids’ anxiety, Doyle explains, actually ends up exacerbating it. “The child then needs all of these accommodations to make them feel better—to have their parent sit with them while they fall asleep at night or to make sure their clothes fit just the right way. The message the parent is sending is: You can’t fix this on your own, so I’m going to fix it for you.”
So how does a parent like me raise risk-savvy kids without going foisting my own anxiety onto their developing psyches? Doyle suggests starting by asking am I responding to my child from a place of fear? as a way of recalibrating your risk-assessment barometer. “You can love and look out for your child without needing to live in daily fear that something’s going to happen to them,” Doyle counsels.
I also take the advice of McLean-based family therapist Mimi Weisberg, who quotes a favorite piece of wisdom from Margaret Wehrenberg’s 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques: “Worry well, and worry once”—that is, consider the real issues in any scenario, weigh them and make your decision accordingly, but don’t allow that decision or the alternate possibilities to haunt you.
Weisberg coaches parents to listen without judgment whenever a child opens up to them about a fear or personal struggle. “Hear what your kid is going through without projecting your own anxiety onto the situation. And recognize them as unique individuals—don’t confuse your own self-worth with your kids’ achievements,” Weisberg counsels. This is particularly true, she says, when it comes to reacting to social dramas as well as their performance in school or in sports, where parents tend to unnecessarily ratchet up the stress-level.
Weisberg points out that, untreated, anxiety can seep into family dynamics in significantly dysfunctional ways. “Anxiety taps into people’s feelings of shame, the worry that they’re not good enough, or the memories they have of feeling that way in the past,” she explains. She says that often, when parents bring their children in for treatment, it’s actually the parents who need help managing their own stress even moreso than the kids. “Anxiety can be very infectious, especially within a family. Parents feel financial and social pressure, which trickles down to the kids—like the proverbial stressed-out dad who comes home from work and kicks the cat. If adults don’t learn how to manage stress and anxiety, the rest of the family is affected by that.”
And when your child comes to you with fears of his own? Doyle cautions against going to extensive lengths to protect your child from that fear, which can foster a false sense of vulnerability and an inability to rely on himself. Instead, she suggests saying that everyone struggles with fear at times and it can be hard to work through, but that “you really are safe.” She cautions against focusing too much on the fear itself and says a short discussion of what the child needs to feel safe should be sufficient.
“The same with somatic symptoms,” Doyle adds. “If a kid gets a ton of attention for physical symptoms that are associated with the fear or anxiety”—usually a stomach ache or headache—“it becomes really hard to kick the somatic symptoms. Rule out any medical issues and then try not to give those symptoms too much attention—which can be really hard for a parent to do when her kid is saying, Mommy, my tummy hurts.”
I also remind myself that, statistically, the likelihood of my fears being realized is far lower than the likelihood of inflicting psychological damage on my kids by denying them the pleasures of childhood. And while statistics aren’t always successful at allaying my fears, the fact that my excessive worrying is more likely to result in a child with anxiety than it is to protect him from real harm is enough to motivate me to loosen my grip a little.
Now when I say no to an activity, I give my boys the respect of trying to articulate my reasoning. Sometimes my rationale is ironclad, but sometimes, when it’s anxiety-driven, hearing it out loud helps me put the anxiety in it’s place—or at least to shelve it for long enough that it doesn’t stifle their childhoods.
Adrienne Wichard-Edds is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to On Parenting. You can read her story about living with anxiety in the November/December 2015 issue of Arlington Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @WichardEdds.
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