Originally published in March 2011.
Turns out, I had more parental anxiety than I thought. When my then nine-year-old daughter Lucy asked if she could walk to the corner store alone, my immediate response was “no”. Lucy pushed and prodded and protested. She was eager to buy a chocolate bar with her allowance money, was bored hanging around the house and clearly wanted a grown-up adventure. I remembered how, at that age, my mom would regularly send me out to the store to buy milk or pasta for that night’s dinner, or (egad!) a pack of DuMaurier Lights. I took a deep breath, told Lucy to bring the dog with her and tried very hard not to think of all the bad things that could happen. Twenty minutes later she arrived home, happy as a clam. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Since when did allowing your kid to go to the store alone feel like such a daring act?
Identifying parental anxiety
It begins when kids are infants and we load them up with intellectually stimulating toys. It progresses through preschool when we pick their friends by arranging playdates, and stretches into grade school when we sign them up for a host of organized after-school activities. It can continue into their teens and 20s when parents fill out their university applications, give them wake-up calls to ensure they show up on time for work and welcome them home with open arms when they are adults and can’t manage on their own.
Raising kids this way can feel more like product development than human development. We want to produce the most well adjusted, smart, well rounded and successful progeny possible, but we’re also producing anxiety-ridden parents.
Parents today worry more about their kids than any previous generation and our anxiety about our kids is one of the top reasons Canadians are seeking therapy, says Dr. John Service, a director with the Canadian Psychological Association. There are a slew of reasons for this rising tide of anxious parents:
- The stigma about anxiety and other mental health problems is lessening and people are more likely to seek help.
- Canadians are having smaller families, so there’s a more intense concentration of parental effort being showered on fewer children.
- The increase in the diagnosis of learning disorders and behavioural issues in children is prompting their stressed-out parents to seek help.
- Our generation’s relative affluence and freedom from crises such as world wars or the Depression has left us free to focus all our worries on our children.
“As well, parents are more isolated from their natural extended family networks than they used to be so they rely more on what they hear in the media about parenting,” says Dr. Service, who points out that sensational headlines about events that are relatively rare – such as child abductions or Internet entrapment, can cause overworrying. “Even if these things aren’t happening in their community, parents are concerned.”
Dr. Service says anxiety is the most pervasive of all mental health disorders and it can affect parents in many ways – from causing sleeplessness to an inability to make decisions.
“Basically it determines whether you are calm and happy or upset and on edge,” he says. “When you are anxious it will affect your marital relationship, your energy levels and of course, your parenting.”
Introducing parent coaches
Toronto parent coach Alyson Schafer has witnessed so much anxiety among her clients that it prompted her to write Breaking the Good Mom Myth: Every Mom’s Modern Guide to Getting Past Perfection, Regaining Sanity and Raising Great Kids (Wiley, 2006). “Something is broken with modern motherhood and anxiety is one of the issues that contributes to it being broken,” she says. “Raising kids has become a project—you can either screw it up or raise a trophy straight A student. And if you fail to do that, then people think you have failed at motherhood.”
Alyson says in many cases the advice of childhood development “experts” has replaced that of grandmothers and aunts and neighbours and made us less confident in our ability to parent. It has also brought out a competitive streak—especially between moms—over whether or not we are parenting the “right” way. The rise in parent coaches like Alyson is itself a reflection of our worry over getting this parenting thing down right. But Alyson points out that hiring a coach can be a big help to parents who need to get some perspective to quell their anxiety.
“I tell parents that worry is about problems you don’t have yet—a future state that is not here. I get them to consider things like why they are really worried about their child’s academic performance when there is no proof that there’s a problem. The funny thing is, it’s usually the parents with straight A students who are worried about things like that.”
Fear is the driving force behind much of our worry and overprotection:
- Fear that our children will be abducted if we let them play out on the street.
- Fear that they won’t have high self-esteem if they don’t earn good marks and win trophies.
- Fear that they won’t be successful if they don’t get into the right university.
“In my day our parents’ definition of success was to have a job, value your family and give back to the community—now the definition of success is to be the best,” says Maria LeRose, a Vancouver television producer and mother of two grown children. “The message kids get early on is that it’s a race and they have to get there first.” Maria was so fascinated by the transformation she has seen in parenting that she made a documentary about it called Hyper Parents & Coddled Kids, which aired on CBC. Maria says that when you ask parents what they want most for their kids, the answer is always “to be happy.” But winning trophies and being the “best” isn’t what brings true happiness.
“Research shows happiness comes from doing for others, having good relationships and being resilient,” she says. “There’s this idea that being happy has to do with having a lot of stuff and winning the race. That’s a lie.”
How Much Is Too Much?
Everybody worries about their kids to some degree. But how do you know when garden-variety worry is beginning to veer into something more damaging? “You need to get help when you can see—or other people tell you—that your worry is interrupting your normal daily patterns,” says Dr. John Service, a director with the Canadian Psychological Association. “Perhaps that means you aren’t getting the house cleaned, or you aren’t paying the bills on time. Maybe there are more arguments between you and the kids or you and your spouse, or people are complaining that you are cranky a lot of the time. That’s when you know it’s time to seek help. It’s important not to blame yourself for your anxiety, but you need to recognize what you are anxious about and then try to determine how warranted that worry is. Therapy helps you put your anxiety into perspective and gives you the tools to do something about it.”
How to reduce parental anxiety
It’s not easy to shift your perspective from anxious to laissez-faire overnight, but these strategies may help decrease your tendency to worry:
Take time for yourself: It isn’t selfish to pursue hobbies or have a night out with friends or a weekend away with your partner without the
kids. It’s good for them to see that you have a life of your own and they aren’t the centre of the universe.
Distract yourself: When worry takes over, fight back by keeping your mind and body occupied with other things. Effective strategies can include getting regular exercise, journaling, reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument and talking to a friend.
Don’t look to the experts for all the answers: Once upon a time, Dr. Benjamin Spock was considered the single authority on parenting. Now there is a whole industrial parenting complex that bombards us with often conflicting advice on how to raise our kids. Trust yourself to have your own answers
for what works for you and your family.
Keep fear in check: Step back and critically examine your worries. For example, many parents don’t allow their kids to play outside alone because of the fear of child abduction but the chances of a child being snatched off the street by a stranger are extremely rare, approximately one in 1.5 million.
Be self-aware of your hovering tendency
Self awareness is required before change can happen. Reading books such as Carl Honor’s Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting (Vintage, 2009) can help you determine if you might be a helicopter parent who worries too much.
Hang out with the right parents: Find other like-minded parents who give their kids room to roam and aren’t always bragging about their children’s accomplishments (and thus bringing out your own insecurities or competitive instincts).