The Anxious Parent

I've been asked to write about parenting with an anxiety disorder. Here it is!

When people are pregnant, we mention their “mom instincts” that we assume they will be gifted at the moment of birth. I remember asking about how people could tell different baby cries meant different needs and was told, “you’ll just know”. I didn’t just know. I had to learn. The fact that I had to learn meant that I second-guessed myself as a parent and felt immense anxiety. “Something must really be wrong if I can’t tell!” There are these societal fantasies and put them together with naturally anxious parents- that’s when parenthood can be full of second-guesses, guilt, and doubt. Parenting is hard and it’s even harder for people with anxiety disorders. Here are a few ideas from my experiences so you can lessen the anxiety and have more mental space to enjoy the gift of being truly present with your child.

1. Work on trusting your child and their process. I believe in the concept that babies are whole beings. They are their own people at birth. Tiny and helpless, yet still individuals. For me, parenting got much easier when I told myself (and truly believed), “I trust that she can figure this out”. My daughter has physical challenges that made it harder for her to reach milestones like holding her own bottle, crawling, and walking. I would get frustrated with her and catch her falls to prevent her crying, but I was ultimately preventing her from learning and feeling confident in her ability to figure it out on her own. She may be atypical, but I now trust her process. She’s proven it to me time and time again. I was worried she wasn’t walking on time. She walked a few months later. I was worried about her not climbing stairs. She did it a few months later. I was worried when she couldn’t walk backwards. She did it a few months later. She’s got this! and my worry didn’t aid her in that!

2. Define your real-deal, serious, measurable, objective, OMG red-flag issues. Write them down. Identify them. Limit them to a couple items. Give yourself permission to not worry unless those things happen. It they do happen, take that as your signal to take action. Examples from my life: “I’ll worry about her dental issues if she starts having decay in those spots”. “I’m giving myself permission to not do anything about her picky eating unless she’s losing weight”. 

3. Talk out loud about anxiety and how you handle it. Parents become the voices in their children’s heads. It’s true. We learn language and speech patterns from parents and it shapes how we see the world. Just as “Oh man, I need to brush my teeth or people will not want to be around me today!” models to a child that they should brush their teeth, speaking about anxiety can normalize and model healthy responses too. Some examples: “This room is really crowded and that makes me nervous. I think I’ll take some deep breaths and see if that helps.” Or take a guess at your child’s feelings and prompt them to trouble-shoot on their own. “You look a little nervous. That can be pretty uncomfortable. What do you think you’ll do?”

4. Place the anxiety gifts with the rightful owner. I’ve met with parents who have anxiety about their child’s drivers license test. Nope. That anxiety belongs to the child. Similarly, don’t expect your children to help with your anxiety. Teach them to own it by example. (I suppose this goes along with #3)

5. Use your community. Parenting is nothing new. Millions of people have been there, done that, and survived. Don’t have community? Work on slowly building it through reaching out to friends, family, or online groups.

6. Worried your child will "catch" your anxiety? Well, anxiety can be genetic. However, it's also solidified by life experiences- some of which we have control over and some of which we don't have control over. The good news is that it's not your fault and you have very little control over if they "get it from you". I often worry that my child will have anxiety. I have some pretty good objective indicators that she will someday struggle with it, but I can also trust that she can do difficult things too. Even if it happens, she can handle it.

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