All parents worry about their kids. It's part of the job description. When our babies are brand new and helpless, we worry about keeping them alive. When they start to do things for themselves, we worry about them falling down the stairs and banging their heads on sharp corners. When they start school, we worry about bullying and how smart they are. However old they are, our worries never totally go away.
But in some cases, the worrying can get out of control. "Anxiety is an overexpression of healthy traits like fear, care, planning ahead and avoiding risk," explained Rachel Kazez, licensed therapist and founder of All Along. "If parents can recognize those positive traits, they can act on them when useful (such as planning a great vacation or helping a child learn to plan ahead for a busy day). When they notice those healthy traits turning into anxious ones, they can try to manage those anxious urges."
Here are some expert-approved tips to reduce parental anxiety (that actually work).
Pretending you're not anxious or refusing to acknowledging those feelings in the first place is hugely counterproductive. "People tend to feel more stressed and anxious when they feel something is wrong with being stressed and anxious," said Carrie Krawiec, licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic and executive director of Michigan Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. "Anxiety is a part of our fight or flight response. When we are put in charge of the care of children, we are going to feel a naturally heightened set of stress — just as any animal caring for their young would be. Keep in mind that we don't have to make our stress go away."
Help reduce your anxiety by setting reasonable expectations for you and your children. "Avoid the word 'should'," said Krawiec. "If you are saying 'I should...' or 'my kids should...' you are applying expectations. The more expectations you have, the more unhappy you are likely to be." Krawiec suggests applying what she calls the 5 to 1 ratio: For every negative or anxious thought about your kids, their future or yourself as a parent, replace it with a minimum of five reasonable alternatives.
Simple breathing exercises can reduce physiological arousal. Slowly inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth until you feel calmer. "Not every situation needs an immediate response," said Bethany Raab, licensed clinical social worker in Denver, Colorado. "Pause and consider how you want to handle what it is that has you worried. If you notice you're worked up, do something to help soothe yourself — take a walk, take a shower, do some breathing exercises. Taking this type of break can help you make a clear decision about how you want to respond to any type of stressful or anxiety-provoking situation."
Licensed psychotherapist Tom Kersting agrees that becoming more present and mindful will bring huge benefits. "If you pick up any stress or anxiety, stop what you are doing, go to a quiet place for five minutes and shift these thoughts and feelings towards ones that are positive and powerful," he said. "With practice, any parent can master this meditative, mindfulness strategy."
Nobody can criticize a parent for doing their research. But the problem is that nowadays there is just so much information at our fingertips — and much of it is contradictory. Even "experts" on parenting issues often don't agree. If you find that books and guides reduce your anxiety, stick to reputable publications.
Social media can feed anxiety by making parents feel that their children aren't living up to others' standards. It's hard not to compare when our social media feeds are a steady stream of proud parent posts and photographs. "Spend less time on social media and more time with your children," said Kersting. "What's out of sight is out of mind, and that's a good thing."
We all want to keep abreast of what's happening in the world — but too much information can have a negative impact on our lives (and our health.) Kersting believes that parents are becoming more anxious because we have instant access to every bit of news across various platforms. "There is just too much information, most of which is bad, scary news, that is seeping into the very susceptible minds of adults and children, causing constant unease," he said. His advice is simple: Turn off the television. "If the news is on in the background, our brains are absorbing this information, even if we don’t believe we are paying attention. The same goes for our kids. Leave those televisions off in the background, especially during dinner."
This could be the mantra for anxious parents. "While it is a parent's job to keep their child safe, it is not useful to the child to eliminate all pain or mistakes," said Kazez. "The best way for a child to develop an empowered sense of responsibility and ability to care for themselves is to let them learn from natural consequences rather than artificial parent consequences or avoidance."
It's tough to ditch the parental guilt, but doing so will help you become less anxious. "Guilt is the fear we have done something to hurt or harm someone else," explained Krawiec. "If you don't take actions to deliberately hurt or harm your children, then you do not need to feel guilt. If your well-meaning actions have an unintended effect of pain on your children, ask yourself 'what can I learn from this?' and move on"
Family and child behavioral expert Dr. Jennifer Freed offered some simple diversion techniques to reduce anxiety. Count out-of-sequence numbers for two minutes to challenge the logical side of the brain, which in turn can soothe the emotional side; jump on one foot for a minute to disrupt looping worry and repetitive thinking; tell a story backward, which uses creativity in a way that helps humor break through worry; give or receive a foot rub.
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