We’ve all felt it. Churning stomachs. Rising heart rates. Minds racing through every worrisome event that could possibly happen to our children. Running the gamut from discomfort to debilitating panic, parental anxiety is real and on the rise.
Fearful of the dangers of contemporary society, parents often worry about safety issues, particularly those outside the home. Yet, statistically, our kids are safer than children of previous generations.
“Many parents perceive this to be the most dangerous time in world history for their children. But this simply isn’t so. Serious drugs are down, murder is down, theft is down, bullying is down and kidnapping is down. But that is not our perception. We tend to think that the most frightening dangers are the most likely,” says Christie Barnes, mother of four and author of The Paranoid Parents Guide.
And safety isn’t the only thing parents worry about. Confronted with many choices for educational opportunities and extracurricular adventures, parents feel responsible for their child’s happiness and future success. Children are pushed to learn a second language, excel at sports and achieve academic excellence. Talk of college applications is regularly heard in preschool coatrooms. Parents are envisioning futures for their children that may, or may not, be what the child develops an interest in.
With safety and success on parents’ minds, we have to remember there are only certain areas of our kids’ upbringing we have power over. Much of our lives, and those of our children, remains out of our individual influence.
“Parents need to be aware of what they can and can’t control. They have to be realistic about the fact that they can only do so much for their child,” says Julius Licata, director of KidsPeace, a national charity that serves the behavioral and mental health needs of children.
What we can control
Worrying is a natural impulse, nature’s way of ensuring we raise the healthiest children we can. But it is necessary to acknowledge that worry isn’t logical. The process of worrying releases chemicals in the brain that cause us to feel panicked. This is useful when you confront an angry unchained dog or see a car veering off course, but those same chemicals are also released when we perceive something as dangerous but it holds no impending threat.
A fearful television show or a frightening crime casually mentioned at a grocery store, can send a mother into weeks of sleepless nights. These pieces of news need to be recognized as not carrying an immediate hazard to a family. The possibility of such an event is tremendously unlikely.
“Parents need to know what is likely to happen to their child, in their neighborhood, in their age group—and fix what they can fix. On average there is only one school shooter incident a year, but it seems like there are threats to every school, every moment of every day because of 24/7 news coverage. But your child is more likely to die of a heart attack, lightning or riding in a shopping cart, not to mention car accidents—the biggest danger—and most die because the children are not buckled in,” continues Barnes.
Parents can control daily safety practices, such as crossing a street safely, sporting a helmet on a bicycle and always wearing a seatbelt in a car. These are tangible ways to keep children safe.
What we can do to ease our fears
In order to be confident parents we need to feel safe ourselves. In this information age of 24 hour news, many of us are constantly surrounded with dismal images and terrifying data. If television and Internet stories are causing parental panic, turn them off. Ignoring sensational media can help parents focus on real issues, instead of spending time and resources on unique dangers, which are making news because of the exceptional nature of the event.
The Internet has also led to more parents searching emotional and physical problems exhibited by their children, sometimes resulting in frightening and false conclusions. Dr. Cheryl Wu, a New York pediatrician, encourages a different approach.
“In general, I wouldn’t recommend parents Google their children’s symptoms or look online. No two children are alike and someone else’s account may not represent the whole child. In fact, what you read is often skewed with very little basis in true medical facts and can lead to unnecessary worry. Instead, speak to a pediatrician whom you trust, and ask her to recommend a go-to website to read,” says Dr. Wu.
We need to trust ourselves as parents, find a sense of safety and share that sense of security with our children. Because as parents, we need to teach our kids to be resourceful and resilient. As these traits develop in our children it will be less painful for us to allow them more autonomy.
“The more you teach your child as he grows up, the easier it will be to let go of worries,” says Licata. “A parent that allows a child to ride a bike in and around the neighborhood will probably find it easier when a child graduates to a car. If a child is only allowed to ride a bike when he is visible it will be more difficult to make the transition to driving.”
By recognizing what we can control and approaching parenting in a logical way, we can be confident we are doing all we can. With our own increased confidence we will be more capable of shedding unwarranted worries. We can protect our children with safety precautions and we can fan ambitions while setting limits and establishing disciplinary measures.
“The main thing is keeping perspective,” says Dr. Wu, “although it’s as difficult as asking someone who thinks she’s drowning to stop and assess the situation. Are you really struggling to stay above water, or are you in a knee-deep pool and your fear of water is getting the better of you? Parents need to trust their instincts, but in a rational way. Care for your child to the best of your knowledge and abilities. And remember, with experience, this will all become easier.”
So, is worrying part of parenting? Yes. But it doesn’t have to consume our thoughts. And we can try to worry about the right things. Attempt to turn an uncomfortable feeling into a productive parenting method. Insist on helmets, seatbelts and homework. And as we try our best, we can love our children wholeheartedly every step of the way. Those things, thankfully, are completely in our control.
Mali Anderson is currently obsessed with selecting a school for her 4-year-old daughter. She looks forward to shedding this obsession but realizes come autumn, another worry will quickly grow in its place.
This story originally appeared in the April 2011 edition of metroparent magazine.