A baby is born, and suddenly, parents are responsible for keeping this precious human alive.
Anxiety is a common aspect of caregiving during infancy because it is adaptive. Worrying keeps parents vigilant for potential danger and focused on the baby’s needs. Appropriate parental attentiveness also promotes a secure parent-child relationship in the early years. So, fretting has its roots in love and care. Ideally, as the child grows in resilience and independence, parents become less anxious and vigilant; but this doesn’t always happen. Worry can become a fixed pattern, even as the baby gradually transforms into a more independent being.
Attentiveness Vs. Anxiety
There is a difference between attentiveness and anxiety. Awareness of our orientation to our child is vital and can lead to discernment about an appropriate level of concern and involvement. For example, parents may “catastrophize” when they witness their child’s frailties. Each misstep is seen as a threat to their ultimate success in life. Anxiety is related to “thought distortions,” and this is an example.
Another thought distortion is “confirmation bias.” Every mistake confirms the negative perceptions parents have about the child (Susan failed another math quiz. She’s not college material). It is hard to hide this sort of mindset from a child. Eventually, anxiety and doubt seep through and may affect the parent-child relationship as well as the child’s self-esteem.
The Dangers of Obsessing
Becoming obsessed with the unknown (the future) is damaging in other ways too. Anxiety robs us of calm objectivity, causing us to react rather than respond. In other words, parents go into rescue mode rather than stepping back to support the child’s own problem-solving skills. A kid who is accustomed to being rescued is less likely to learn to stand up to challenges independently.
Anxiety can become an entrenched pattern driven by yet another thought distortion. Overly anxious caregivers begin to believe that if they do not worry, everything will fall apart. Likewise, parents may think that letting go and allowing children to make mistakes they can learn from is irresponsible on their part.
Some helpful steps may reduce excessive worry, including parenting adult children.
- The first step is to practice acceptance. Embrace the fact that your child is a separate, unique individual from you. Young people have a different moral compass and orientation to a successful future than their parents. It also seems to take youngsters longer to become independent today than in past generations.
- Remind yourself that even your adult child is still in the process of development. An unambitious 18-year-old may eventually get their mojo working.
- Practice making a balanced appraisal of your child’s faults by listing all of the things she has going for her.
- Allow yourself not to worry. Instead, spend more time making yourself the best you can be.
- Try to accept that your child will have some hard knocks. Mistakes are learning experiences. Very few missteps are fatal or lead to a failed life.
- Explore whether you see your child’s mistakes or successes as a reflection on you. What your child does is their choice. Children are not spokespersons for the quality of their parents’ character.
Trust is an essential dynamic in the parent-child relationship. Throughout childhood, parents are attentive to promote bonding and security. Children trust their parents to take care of them. As children grow, it’s best to step back and trust them to find their own path. Parental anxiety (and the thought distortions that go with it) is a burden that weighs kids down and compromises their confidence.
Believing that your children will find their place in the world is the best way to nudge them forward while building a secure parent-child relationship during the young adult years and beyond.
Dr. Pat Blackwell is a licensed psychologist who has worked with families for over 30 years. See her website for more information and her blog at patblackwellphd.com.