Remember, you can’t control your child and you can’t
control the future.
But you can control your actions right now.
Parents worry a lot – and that’s a good thing! Worry really is a good thing, but it can be exhausting and counterproductive if we feel helpless in the face of our fears. Parental concern is nature’s way of making sure we attend to our child’s needs. Worry keeps us involved, attuned to our kids and can even give us energy when we’re exhausted.
Here’s how you can use worry to your advantage.
When you find yourself overwhelmed with worry, ask yourself this question: Are you worried about what’s actually happening now or something that might or might not happen in the child’s future?
The best way to feel relief is to focus on the present. Maybe it’s schoolwork or how your child is treating others. Identify the behavior you’re worried about in present terms and let that be your new focus.
What level of parental worry isn’t appropriate for children to experience?
Worry is a fact of everyday life for every parent, especially the parent of a young child. Some worry is good, like “Is the pool gate is locked?” or “It’s been quiet too long… what’s going on?” But other grown up worries can haunt our minds and strain the basic day – the next paycheck, the boss, a relative’s illness.
The bottom line is that children are watching us every second. We are their models for coping with emotion of every kind. So if we worry without displaying some healthy coping response, our children may “catch” our worry, just like the sniffles. What’s an appropriate level of worry for our kids to see? The better question is, “Do my emotional reactions show healthy emotion management?” Or, “Do my emotional reactions show my child an out-of-control parent?”
Frequent high levels of parental worry and distress without visible coping efforts is unhelpful and scary for young children to witness. It conveys the frightening message, “Something is SO BAD my parent cannot manage it, so this is a dangerous moment.” And how do young children express unmanageable anxious feelings? You got it … tantrums, irritability, acting out “for no reason.” No reason, that is, that they can explain.
Is there a level of parental worry that’s okay for children to experience?
Yes, of course. Some level of worry is an everyday experience. It can be educational for young children to see their parent as a “coping model.” That means, a parent who experiences an uncomfortable feeling but displays healthy management of that feeling. Breathing and problem-solving talk is great teaching!
For example, a parent’s face may reveal worry. A 4-year-old may ask, “Mommy, what’s wrong?” A helpful reply could be something like this: “I’m thinking about a grown-up problem and some ways to fix it. I will figure it out and it will be okay. I’m gonna take a deep breath right now to help my body feel calmer and help me think.”
Is it a good idea for parents to make every effort to push their worry aside (to come back to later) when around their kids so to protect them from it?
Yes, in general, it’s good to reserve large worries for later if you can. But if your feelings are going to show, better to acknowledge them with your child in a healthy way. Faking rarely works. Children are masters at noting discrepancies between our words, bodies and faces.
A good rule of thumb is: Conceal the Content, Show the Coping. Better to say something like, “I have a grown-up problem, and I’m thinking of ways to make it better. I’m going to take a deep breath and shake out my hands to help me relax.” You might say, “Mommy is going to take a few quiet minutes so my brain can think better.” The best words are the ones that feel natural to you. The heart of the healthy message is: “This grown up is looking for a way to handle this grown-up problem.”
As hard as it is to manage our strong feelings, especially anxiety, the payoff for that effort extends far beyond the present moment. The payoff is in literally building coping skills into the young child brain. In these early years, more brain cells are forming and connecting than in any other period of life! Calm parental coping builds stress-management pathways in a young child’s brain.
What signs might children exhibit if being affected by parental worry?
If children “catch” contagious worries from adults, they may express that emotional discomfort in increased irritability, more tantrums, big upsets over minor things, lowered ability to tolerate disappointment, more bad dreams, and increased clinginess. To you, the child may just seem to be acting up at the most inconvenient moment. But after a moment of reflection, perhaps after they’ve gone to bed, a parent may consider, “Maybe he’s been seeing my worry and reacting to it….”
If our kids have been negatively impacted by our worry, what can we do to help support them?
Because children are truth-meters, genuineness in our interactions (without overloading them) is best. A parent who thinks she’s over-worried her child can always “repair,” as in the following scenario: “I know you’ve heard me upset on the phone with grandma. We’re talking about a grown-up problem and thinking of a way to make it better. We’re taking care of it and it’s going to be okay.”
We can reassure children by affirming a healthy boundary between child and adult matters. “Buddy, this problem is for me to figure out. Your job is to play and have fun, listen to me and your teachers, go to school, and pick up your stuff. My job is to figure out grown up things and to love and take care of YOU! So let me give you a super hug.”
Worry happens. Young children don’t need to be burdened with adult concerns. But they can grow in emotional strength by watching parents experience discomfort, display calm coping, and express confidence in their problem solving (even if a problem doesn’t feel immediately solvable). Anxiety frays our patience. But digging deep for a bit of calm can teach your observing young child priceless lessons. Adult coping builds children’s coping.
It’s called Futirizing!
It’s important to understand that anxiety leads our brains to play tricks on us. It fools us out of the now and into worrying about tomorrow.
This is called “Futurizing,” and it’s one of the most negative and potentially destructive things we can do as parents. Understand that futurizing—taking a present action or behavior and imagining a much worse outcome in the future—is not the same as recognizing a problem and putting a plan into place to help your child. (I’ll talk more about that in a minute.)
Why Do We Futurize?
We have enough to concern ourselves with in the present—why add more burden by worrying about the future? Still, most of us slide into this form of parental worrying from time to time. It’s easy to make ourselves anxious by jumping to the future in our minds—and unfortunately once we get there, we remain in an anxious state or even become permanently panicky about our child’s prospects.
It’s important to understand that anxiety leads our brains to play tricks on us. It fools us out of the now and into worrying about tomorrow. It makes our focus rigid and keeps the present, real issues out of sight. Anxiety gets in our way of solving problems—and in the way of our ability to help our child. We can’t see ourselves or them very clearly when we’re feeling this way. Of course, we can’t help our child very effectively when our own perspective is distorted. Anxiety also makes us more judgmental and critical, and promotes catastrophic and “extreme” thinking. Although it is the anxiety talking in these situations, the danger here is that we start to believe what it is saying—and we respond to it as if it is our logical thought.
How We Create What We Most Worry about Happening
Futurizing can create what we most worry about happening. A case study with a mother who worried that her child would grow up with low self-esteem because the mom felt that she herself lacked it. So she praised and put lots of positive focus on her child with the hope that her child would feel good about herself and grow up with more self-esteem than this mother did. Now, despite the mom’s best intentions, her child grew up dependent on constant praise and attention from others, which left her feeling insecure by her teen years. She was nearly unable to feel good about herself when she didn’t get constant praise and attention from others, and she became reliant on it. She was programmed to expect it. Sadly, this was just what her mom was trying to prevent.
If this mom would have been able to remain in the now, she would have been less anxious and therefore more able to see her child with more objectivity. She would more clearly have seen what her daughter actually needed (or didn’t need) in order to develop self-esteem. Putting a plan into place that will help your child in the present will do her—and you—the most good.
Worrying is detrimental to you because it causes stress and robs you of energy. Stop and imagine what you would do with all the time you’d have if you stopped worrying about your child’s future. Now just concentrate on what’s happening with her right now. You might not feel great about the behavior she’s displaying, but I’ll bet it’s a lot more manageable than trying to troubleshoot her entire life from where you stand now. Remember, you don’t need to feel bad for something in advance; just focus on what’s going on in the moment, and take it one step at a time.
Here are five things you can do today to stop worrying and start concentrating on who your child is right now.
- Remember that kids change.
Remind yourself that kids grow and change and develop and mature. Trust this natural process. What you see now is not necessarily what you’ll see in the future. Kids need guidance and direction, but proper guidance comes from clearly seeing what they need today so that they can do better tomorrow. James Lehman says to act “as if” with your child. What this means is that you act “as if” your child is behaving responsibly. Start expecting that of your child, and you might see a change in their behavior. Stop your own imagined fears and projections from running over you so that you can see your kids and parent them from clear lenses.
- Be careful not to assign meaning to the behavior you are seeing.
The interpretation might be more about you than the child. Ask yourself, “What do I see and hear, what is in front of me, what are the facts?” versus imagining, worrying and projecting. Remind yourself that kids are works in progress. Rather than being anxious about why they are doing what they’re doing and putting meaning to it, instead remind yourself they just haven’t yet learned the repertoire of skills that will help them to do better. Knowing you can provide those skills for them can help you calm down and do something productive. You can guide them to make better choices with consequences, boundaries and limits, rather than spending your time worrying about the poor choices they make and what that means for their future.
- Know the difference between what is versus what you think or imagine.
Learn your own history well enough so that you know yourself. This will help you to know when you might be projecting something about yourself onto your child versus when something is actually about the child. For example, if you know that you come from a family that was always anxious about sickness and health issues, you will be better able to know if you are holding your child back from participating in certain activities because of her own vulnerabilities or because of your unresolved issues in your own family.
- Worry is futurizing.
- Understand that worrying is futurizing. If you find yourself going down the rabbit hole, stop and ask yourself these questions:
- What is the likelihood of that happening? Is this realistic?
- What do I actually see and hear, not what am I afraid of seeing and hearing or what I’m imagining all this means.
- Why am I worried about this particular thing? Is it more about my own resolved issues or more about my child? If there’s something there, then how can I cope?
- Am I jumping to conclusions, over-generalizing, mind reading, projecting? What are the actual facts that I need to pay attention to?
- By pausing and doing an inventory of what’s going on inside you, you’ll have a good chance to stop worrying and start focusing on how to problem solve the task at hand.
- Practice meditation and mindfulness.
Include in your life the things that will lower your anxiety and help you to live in the present. You might take a walk, pray, do yoga, or just sit in the sun for a moment clearing your head. This will not only help your personal growth, it will help you to know where you end and where your child begins. Defining yourself and being securely planted in the present will allow you to raise kids who will thrive in the future.
- Staying in the present, not worrying about the future, and knowing what belongs to us—and not them—helps us see what our children actually need now and then we can provide it.
After all, that’s all we have control over. Staying firmly planted in the present helps you see if you are reacting to something your child actually said or did, something you imagine your child said or did, or something you fear that your child might say or do in the future.You will better know where your child is coming from when you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the present. Just the right amount of concern could solidify ties between parents and their adult children, but too much fretting may become a burden to the relationship. If someone knows you worry about them, they may see it as an expression of love and caring, but at the same time they can feel irritated and annoyed by it.At a certain point, however, expressing one’s unease to the other person exacted a cost. The more parents and adult children worry about one another and discuss those worries, the more negatively the other party viewed the relationship. In a sense it’s socially and emotionally supportive to worry and share your concerns, but you need to do it in a way that doesn’t make the other person feel that you perceive them to be incapable of managing their own affairs. Perhaps they feel like you are undermining their autonomy, and maintaining autonomy is important in parent-adult child ties.
In a study conducted by the University of Florida, 70 percent of the adult children said their parents’ health was their biggest worry, while parents expressed a wide range of worries relating to their adult children, according to an analysis she did for a second paper that has not been published yet. “The interesting thing is that many of the children in our study were in their 20s and their parents were not of advanced age or experiencing any health problems,” research team member Hay said.
“Very few adults or their parents said they didn’t worry about each other,” Hay said. “Almost everyone could identify a major worry that they could clearly explain, and they reported thinking about it somewhat to a lot of the time.”
Parents worry about their children largely as a continuation of patterns that developed early in the relationship, Hay believes. When children are young and parents are responsible for so much of their life, they probably worry about a variety of things, which is not likely to just suddenly stop once their children become adults. Indeed, while the focus of adult children’s worries overwhelmingly centers on their parents’ health, parents had many diverse worries, the study found. They talked about their children’s health, but they also mentioned finances, relationship issues and problems in balancing work and family.
A small proportion of adults brought up more global concerns, such as today’s world being a dangerous place, Hay said. The majority of parents discussed anxieties that were specific to their own situation, though, such as their child having an unsafe job.
The study found that daughters fretted slightly more about their mothers than fathers, while sons worried equally about both parents. There were no differences in how much mothers and fathers worried about their daughters and sons. The study confirms that worrying is still very much a part of family relationships once children have grown and moved out.
Learn to Calm Your Thoughts
Feeling in control of out-of-control thoughts is a skill that takes time and practice.
Don’t feel bad if your worried thoughts continue to fill your mind. Pushing them aside will get easier with time.
Continue working on finding new strategies to combat anxiety until you find a few that work.
Tip: Make a list of things that you can do to calm yourself in an anxious moment. It is easier to think of things when you are calm, and then refer to the list later. Many people use mantras (“I am calm” or “I am peaceful”), prayer, journaling, art, Try music , getting outside or calling a friend.
Speak It Out Loud
Fears love hiding away in the dark corners of our mind. Take away their power by saying your fear or worry out loud!
Sometimes, hearing it makes us realize how unrealistic it really is: “I’m worried that if I don’t remind you to wash your hands, you’ll get sick, then I’ll have to miss work to stay home with you, and I’m really busy at work right now…”
Tip: Not every fear is appropriate for children to hear. We don’t want to burden our kids with adult problems or thoughts. It’s ok to say something general: “Mommy’s worries are really big right now. I’m going to take a few deep breaths to calm down.”