Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the US- they impact approximately 1 in 5 people. And while your condition isn't your fault, you want to be mindful of how your symptoms might impact your children. Unregulated or untreated parental anxiety can affect their development and well-being. Here's what you need to know.
What Is Parental Anxiety?
All parents tend to experience some stress over raising their children. It's a massive responsibility, and some worry is normal. But parental anxiety refers to having excessive stress over caregiving. This anxiety can be specific to the child's health or development, but it can also extend into other areas, like their academic performance, peer group, or career trajectory.
Some of the common signs and symptoms of general anxiety include:
excessive worry about your child's well-being
headaches or migraines
unexplained muscle pain
stomach pains and nausea
When it comes to parental anxiety, a parent will typically struggle with the following issues:
It's normal to want to protect your child from harm. At the same time, risk and autonomy are essential for growth.
If you have parental anxiety, you might try to protect your child from situations you perceive harmful or dangerous. Sometimes, this avoidance is explicit. For example, you might prohibit their young child from trying a certain slide at the park because it looks too scary. Other times, this avoidance may be more covert. You may stall enrolling their child in swim classes because they have intense fears of them drowning.
Parenting takes a village, and the occasional reassurance and support can help any child thrive. But it can become problematic when you require ongoing validation from others to feel competent. You may also feel like you need permission from others before making a decision.
This could look like reaching out to the pediatrician or texting a friend every time you experience a concerning symptom. It could also manifest as seeking reassurance that you're doing the right thing when you feel ambivalent.
Expressing Consistent Anxiety (To Your Own Child)
Parental anxiety often feels uncontrollable, and you may find it hard to contain your worry. This naturally seeps into how you parent your child. You may frequently find yourself saying things like:
You're going to give me a heart attack!
You're stressing me out.
That's too scary.
I don't want you to get hurt!
Experiencing Constant Intrusive Thoughts
Car accidents. Brain injuries. School shootings. Life-changing trauma can happen at any time, and it's only normal for parents to worry about their child's well-being.
94% of people have intrusive thoughts, which refer to unprompted, disturbing thoughts. But most people can accept these thoughts as unwanted and move on from them painlessly.
However, someone with parental anxiety may feel preoccupied with their fears, and it can affect their physical health and relationship with their child. They might also assume that having intrusive thoughts dooms them to be true.
Coddling and Enabling Behaviors
Parental anxiety often manifests in themes of perfectionism and control. You feel worried about your child's well-being, and you try to shield them from pain.
Such enabling can start during the early years. You may, for example, spoonfeed them purees long after they're capable of eating solid food because you fear choking.
These behaviors then progress into adolescence and early adulthood, often reinforcing codependent relationships. You might help them with their high school essays because you assume your writing will land them a better grade. You may schedule their dentist appointment because you worry they won't do it otherwise.
Almost every modern parent has turned to Google for parenting guidance or glanced through WebMD to read up on a potentially concerning symptom. This is life in our digital age, and we have limitless information available at the press of a touchscreen.
But someone with parental anxiety spends an extensive amount of time researching various issues. For example, you might spend hours reading through various baby sunscreen reviews. Or, you may read every article you can find on the signs of autism.
What Causes Parental Anxiety?
Is anxiety on the rise- or are we just more vocal and aware of its role in parenting? Experts aren't exactly sure, but it's probably a combination of both. As it stands, the common risk factors for anxiety include:
having a history of trauma
co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression
having first-degree relatives with anxiety
accumulation of chronic stress
certain physical health conditions
Parental Anxiety Vs. Postpartum Anxiety
Neither parental anxiety nor postpartum anxiety is officially recognized in the DSM. That said, most medical professionals agree that these conditions undoubtedly exist, and they can affect the well-being of families everywhere.
Postpartum anxiety is more specific to the initial postpartum period. Welcoming a new baby is a significant adjustment, and postpartum anxiety can range from mild discomfort to all-consuming distress. This condition can affect both mothers and fathers, and some of the main symptoms include:
immense distress that your baby will stop breathing (resulting in excessive 'checking' during naps and bedtime)
fear of leaving your baby alone with anyone else
being terrified that you will accidentally hurt your baby
persistent feeling that something is (or will go) terribly wrong with your baby
Parental anxiety, on the other hand, is not specific to the postpartum period. While many people with parental anxiety also have a history of postpartum anxiety, these symptoms can occur at any stage during parenting, including when the children are adults and have left home.
Coping With Parental Anxiety
If you identify that you struggle with parental anxiety, you're not alone. Fortunately, there are several strategies you can take to feel better. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
Validate Your Fears
Some fear is unavoidable in parenting. You can't eliminate all risks, and you certainly can't expect your anxiety to disappear entirely.
Sometimes, it's helpful to simply label your emotions for what they are. I'm scared of my daughter breaking her arm on the play structure. I'm scared of my son getting his license and driving home drunk after a party.
Focus On What’s in Your Control
You can't guarantee your child won't poison themselves. You can, however, keep all medicines high and out of reach, contain hazardous cleaning supplies in a locked cabinet, and teach your child to avoid ingesting anything outside of food.
You can't stop a child from experimenting with drugs. You can, however, routinely review the risks of drug use, check in if you suspect they're struggling, and reinforce healthy boundaries regarding your household expectations.
If things always feel chaotic, it's likely you're focusing too much effort on what's beyond your control. Try to shift your thoughts on focus on how you can be proactive. Remember that you can't guarantee the future or shape any single outcome. You can only do your best.
Practice Mindfulness Exercises
Anxiety is rooted in the future. You're worried about what will happen tomorrow or next month or in five years. Therefore, anxiety loses its hold when you reel yourself back into the present moment.
Deep breathing: The next time you feel overwhelmed, pause. Close your eyes for a moment and inhale slowly and hold for five counts. Then, exhale all the air for five counts. Repeat several times.
Progressive muscle relaxation: Progressive muscle relaxation refers to slowly tensing and then relaxing different muscles in your body. Consider working from head to toe until you feel a complete sense of lightness.
Five senses: When you feel anxious, take a moment and ground yourself by focusing on your five senses. Label five things you see, four things you hear, three things you feel, two things you smell, and one taste.
Safe place: Visualizing a safe place can help you feel comforted if life feels scary or unsafe."Simply imagine a tranquil place that promotes a sense of calmness."Allow yourself to travel there whenever you need.
Safe object: It may be helpful to hold a stone or coin in your pocket as a tangible reminder to be present or to "stay calm."
Positive affirmations: Consider practicing a mantra to keep your spirits up. For example, you might tell yourself, I trust that this will pass. Or, you could try, I am capable of coping with my feelings.
Keep Yourself Busy
Anxiety can fester when you're idle. So, try to occupy your time with meaningful activities and self-care as often as possible.
This doesn't mean packing your schedule in a way that you're so busy you're overwhelmed. It simply means trying to enjoy life, without letting your thoughts get in the way.
Challenge Your Thoughts
Anxiety can trick you into believing that your worries are factual. However, it's important to remind yourself that all thoughts- even the ones that feel so real- can be challenged or reframed.
For example, let's say you're worried about your child's grades. They're failing two classes, and it has you believing that they won't graduate high school or get into college. Subsequently, you worry that they'll never find another job or succeed in the real world.
If you struggle with spiraling, consider trying these cognitive-behavioral exercises:
examine the evidence (what proof do you have that this outcome will occur?)
evaluate the worst-case and worst-case scenarios
imagine what you would tell your best friend if they were in this situation
assess if there's another outcome that might take place
These strategies aren't meant to squash or invalidate your fears. Instead, they're intended to help you feel less absolute in how anxious you feel.
Seek Support From Other Parents
If you feel isolated, your anxiety may seem more exacerbated. Consider investing more time and energy into building a support system.
Ideally, you want to surround yourself with healthy people who can validate your concerns without consigning them. With that, be mindful of relationships with people who also have high levels of parental anxiety. You certainly don't want your worries to "feed off" on each another.
Consider Getting Professional Support
Sometimes, even the best self-help strategies aren't enough to offset intense anxiety. If you continue feeling stressed- or your symptoms are progressively worsening- it may be time to consider therapy.
A therapist can provide reassurance and guidance during this time. They will also teach you practical coping skills you can use to manage your symptoms.
Being a parent can be stressful, but working through your parental anxiety is important for your mental health. Learning to be more calm and level-headed also helps you be more present with your child. If you or a loved one is struggling, we are here to help! Contact us today to learn more.