It’s only natural to worry about your children. There are so many things in this world that could hurt them—it’s even reported in the news! What if a car careens out of control and crashes into the sidewalk while they’re walking home from school? What if a fire breaks out in the school laboratory and they don’t evacuate in time? What if their classmate with a bad case of the sniffles infects them with a contagious, virulent disease?
(A little aside about that last scenario—all you prospective parents out there, please don’t send your child to school with chickenpox. Your child’s future classmates will thank you for it. Signed, someone who most certainly did not contract chickenpox in kindergarten from a sick classmate.)
All that worrying and parental anxiety can become a cause of concern if it starts to impede your daily routines. How do you know when it’s time to stop?
Signs that you worry too much about your child:
- You find yourself avoiding activities other parents don’t
“Dad, can I go to the playground with my friends after school tomorrow?”
“The playground? Who are you going with?”
“My classmates, Xavier and Yvonne.”
“When does school end tomorrow?”
“At three pm.”
“So late? No, I think you should come straight home. It’s not safe to go wandering around after school. Something could happen.”
Conversations like these are one example of avoidant behaviour. Parents may seek to keep their child out of harm’s way by keeping them from ever being exposed to danger in the first place.
- You’re the first one swooping in when your child falls down or skins a knee
We’ve all seen this parent in action at the playground. They’re the ones who fancy themselves combat medics in wartime. Watch them as they rush in from the side-lines whenever their child so much as trips over their shoe laces, bearing wet wipes, juice boxes, plasters with smiling cartoon characters, and various other doodads from their First Aid Kit-slash-treasure chest. It doesn’t matter if their child isn’t actually injured—all of their parents’ fussing convinces them that they are. That’s when the crying starts. Oh lord, the crying.
Overprotective parents just want their child to be safe. Any sign that their child is in danger (imagined or otherwise) is major cause for concern. But while they might think they are protecting their little ones from harm, they are also coddling and infantilising them, leaving their children unprepared for the real world.
- You involve yourself in your child’s life a little too much
“Dad, can I go to the playground with my friends after school tomorrow?”
“Okay, kiddo! Do you need me to come along?”
“Dad, it’s like five minutes away from school, I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure? I can meet you at the gates and walk you there. We can grab dinner on the way home.”
“Dad, it’s fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Parent-child playdates are fun when your kid is still a toddler, but as they grow older many children seek greater independence in their lives. It’s a normal fact of life for your child to spend more time with their friends and away from home. Trying to insert yourself in their personal lives too much can be a sign of parental overcontrol!
Parental overcontrol refers to an excessive amount of parental involvement in a child’s daily activities or routines. It’s all well and good to take a healthy amount of interest in your child’s life, but be careful not to cross the line!
- You fixate on seemingly unimportant things
Does your child scoring a less than perfect score on their latest spelling test keep you up all night? Maybe you worry excessively about the state of their homework. What will the teachers say if they turn in a less-than-perfect assignment? Maybe—just maybe—instead of helping your child to complete their homework, you actually do it for them?
In the long run, your child flunking a homework assignment in primary school isn’t likely to have an adverse effect on their academic record. Obsessing over the little things is likely to stress both you and your child out. It also runs the risk of sending you down a negative thought spiral, where one concern leads to another concern and another concern and on and on and on until you’re convinced that your child is going to die alone and impoverished—all because of that one spelling test they failed in primary school.
Consequences of Anxious Parenting
- On your children
Avoidance behaviours are effective in keeping your worries at bay, but they also deprive your child of valuable life and learning experiences. The same thing goes for both overprotective and overcontrolling behaviours. Protecting your child from the consequences of their actions too much keeps them from developing resilience and learning to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Similarly, parental overcontrol keeps children from learning from their mistakes—by taking away the opportunity to make them. Parental overcontrol has been found to correlate with higher levels of child anxiety; without sufficient exposure to new and threatening experiences, children often are unable to cope with what they perceive to be excessive levels of threat when alone.
Furthermore, children often look to their parents as models for their behaviour. Expressing too much anxiety in front of your child runs the danger of them internalising your anxious behaviour and recognising it as a normal reaction. This puts them at risk of developing anxiety disorders themselves in their later years.
- On you!
That’s right, anxious parenting can have harmful effects on parents too! The very act of worrying excessively about your children puts your psyche under a great deal of stress. Research has found that heightened stress levels can make you physically ill by suppressing your immune system. It can even interfere with your appetite, lifestyle habits, relationships, sleep quality, and job performance!
Tips to reduce parental anxiety
- Learn to differentiate facts from fear
Equip yourself with the tools to logically counter those nightmare scenarios. The problem with anxiety is that it tends to twist reality to trap you in a nightmare of your own making. Having hard facts and numbers on hand can serve as ammunition to punch out the little anxiety-goblin inside your head.
- Focus on the present
Take your mind off scary “what-ifs” by immersing yourself in the here and now. Sometimes it helps to just take life a day at a time.
- Learn to let go
What was acceptable in their early years may become less so as your child grows older. Don’t react so quickly if your child meets a stumbling block—give them a chance to resolve the situation by themselves before you intervene.
- Look after yourself
Do you know the oxygen mask rule? When crisis strikes on an aeroplane, you’re supposed to attend to yourself first before you help your child; the same principle applies here. Take some time to get yourself back on track if you think your parental anxiety is getting out of hand.
Relaxation techniques like yoga classes or mindfulness exercises can also be a fun parent-child bonding activity! Take the time to teach your child a simple mindfulness exercise to manage their stress. It will help them in the years to come.
- Seek help
Last but not least, should your condition show no sign of improving, it might be pertinent to arrange an appointment with a therapist. A qualified doctor is better equipped to help you with managing your anxiety.
A healthy amount of anxiety does help you keep your family alive and healthy, but it can become maladaptive in larger doses. If you recognise these symptoms of parental anxiety in you, don’t be afraid to take action—it’s never too late to break the cycle.
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Clarke, Kiri, Peter Cooper and Cathy Creswell. “The Parental Overprotection Scale: Associations with child and parental anxiety.” Journal of Affective Disorders 151.2 (2013): 618-624. Electronic. 12 July 2018. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3808745/>.
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Slabodnick, Levana. Parenting While Anxious: 5 Ways to Cope With Anxiety as a Parent. 11 July 2017. Electronic. 12 July 2018. <https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/parenting-while-anxious-5-ways-to-cope-with-anxiety-as-parent-0711175>.
StrategicPsychology. Effects of Parental Anxiety on Children. n.d. Electronic. 12 July 2018. <http://strategicpsychology.com.au/effects-of-parental-anxiety-on-children/>.
Wallace, Kelly. “How our anxiety impacts our kids.” CNN 15 July 2016. Electronic. 12 July 2018. <https://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/04/health/parental-anxiety-impact-kids/index.html>.
WebMD. How Worrying Affects the Body. n.d. Electronic. 12 July 2018. <https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/how-worrying-affects-your-body#1>.
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