Parental anxiety is widespread. The latest figures from the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) indicate that 40 million US adults carry an anxiety disorder diagnosis each year. This figure doesn’t reflect the less severe worry and anxiety constricting people’s lives. While we don’t have an exact breakdown of the anxious statistics, in terms of the content and sources of people’s anxiety, it’s a safe bet that anxiety related to parenting is well represented in these figures.
As parents, we seem naturally gifted in the art of worry. We worry about our children’s safety and overall well-being. We fear they’re sad or feeling hurt socially. We worry about friend groups and other external influences. We get anxious about homework, grades and whether they’ll gain admission into a good school. The list goes on.
All of this anxious worrying invites unnecessary stress into our life and the lives of those whom we love, including our children. Healthy, responsible parenting doesn’t need to include chronic worrying and anxiety. In fact, anxiety can interfere with making well-informed, well-integrated decisions as a parent. So in the interest of our own happiness and being the best parent we can be, taking steps to worry less is a worthwhile goal.
Here are some helpful steps to reduce the power and presence of worry and anxiety in your life as a parent:
1. Raise Self-Awareness
The first step to reigning in parental anxiety is doing a personal inventory — identifying your historical, reoccurring fears and worries that go beyond your role as a parent. Going through this process will help you understand your anxious triggers (those things that cause you to worry and feel under threat) and help you more easily discern if your worry is just that — a worry — or a genuine concern requiring parental action. Here are some self-reflection questions to help you get started:
- Growing up, what made you anxious or caused you to worry?
- What did your parents worry about?
- What did you worry about before you had kids?
- What is your greatest fear in life (think big picture) and why do you think this is your top fear?
2. Spot Worries in the Moment
It’s also helpful to list your top anxious concerns as a parent — those reoccurring worries you know aren’t helpful, even if they are tied to a real concern, such as social rejection at school or procrastinating on homework. Taking appropriate parental action, such as equipping your child with the tools and support in response to bullying, doesn’t require or necessitate anxious rumination. It’s important to separate out worry from thoughtful parental action that isn’t based on emotional reactivity.
To get a profile of your parental anxiety, write down the specific distressing thoughts that come into your mind. Try to label the emotion(s) attached to the worry. Is it restlessness? Panic? Insecurity? Loss of control? Also, try to locate where you feel the anxiety in your body. Abdomen? Chest? The goal is to create a mental, emotional, and physical profile for the familiar anxious experience.
Once you’ve created the profile, work on spotting the worries early before they’ve gained momentum and traction in your mind. Notice when you go away in your head and start fueling the worrisome thoughts with your preoccupied attention—running the worry through your mind over and over. When you catch yourself drifting with one of the well identified worries, try to rotate your attention and life energy to the external world, focusing on the task at hand or the person in front of you.
3. Delay the Worry
When you’re caught up in the anxious experience, you may find it difficult to tell the difference between needless worries and a real problem requiring action. For some parents, for example, a child’s complaint of a stomach ache can instantly trigger fears and images of a bursting appendix. If you know health anxiety — or whatever the fear might be — is a repeating theme, try instituting a 10-minute delay. Set a timer and say to yourself, OK, for the next 10 minutes I’m not going to allow myself to think about, problem solve or monitor the anxious concern. Then you engage in a healthy distraction, reevaluating the concern — if needed — in 10 minutes. After the delay, you’ll likely have a more balanced perspective on the issue.
4. Practice Mindfulness
It’s never easy to feel anxious and you can’t always prevent worries from showing up — at times they are unwelcome visitors. In these spaces, you want to respond in a way that will defuse the anxious thoughts and feelings. Applying mindfulness principles can help. Try these three simple steps when you feel emotionally flooded and overwhelmed:
- Feel your feet on the ground
- Take a few deep breaths; notice and loosen any tight muscles in your body; and remind yourself to relax.
- Rotate your mental attention to the external world, hyper-focusing on the immediate environment using one or more of the five senses (sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste). One example would be attuning to all the sounds you can detect for a couple of minutes or carefully inspecting something visually in your environment.
5. Find Ways to Unplug & Relax
Raising kids is hard work, requiring your time and focus. Make sure, however, that the children aren’t your sole focus, where you neglect your own needs and person. It’s important to carve out time to de-stress, do things for yourself, and engage in activities that feed your soul. Maybe that’s hiking or spending time with friends or just having quiet time in the bedroom at night where family members know not to disturb. Spend some time figuring out what you need to stay positive and balanced as a person and then build these activities into the schedule.
It’s normal to worry and feel anxious as a parent. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should accept the status quo. You can take concrete steps to worry less and reduce anxiety in you and make the home environment less stressful. Try implementing the five steps outlined above in your quest to be a less anxious parent.
Dr. Scott Symington is the author of Freedom from Anxious Thoughts and Feelings: A Two-Step Mindfulness Approach for Moving Beyond Fear and Worry. He is a licensed clinical psychologist who helps adults overcome worry and anxiety, negative moods, addictive behaviors, and other conditions stealing people’s joy and freedom. For more information, please visit, www.drsymington.com and connect with him on Twitter, @drsymington.