Parenting is an exhilarating and exhausting job and likely the hardest one you will ever have. Even folks who have no children are likely to agree with that statement.
We teach our children so many things; unfortunately, one is fear. It is intended as a means of protection. But we too often let that fear be a baseline home for our kids and us.
Fear can be crippling. From the moment we first hold our newborn, fear grips our mother hearts. After all, the world seems like a frightening and dangerous place. The list of things that terrify us is endless. For example, have you ever been afraid something bad will happen to your child, thought you might mess them up for life, or worried you can’t protect them all the time?
I believe every parent would affirm that the answer to those questions is “Yes.” Intellectually most parents know they cannot protect their children from everything, but if that is your go-to thought, you are likely parenting from a place of fear. This creates ongoing and heart-crushing anxiety and prevents you from seeing the good, being grateful, and enjoying your child.
I am not saying it is intentional to be anxious and fearful, nor am I saying that you even realize it.
Fear: Where does it come from, and how does it manifest?
There are plenty of good reasons to be fearful. Society has imposed, particularly in Western culture, unrealistic expectations, stereotypical versions of ‘success,’ and the value of ‘winning.’
Looking inward and contemplating how you were parented, fear, punishment, and yelling may sound all too familiar. Trying to modify that approach or change the mistakes we believe our parents made naturally affects our parenting styles. That evokes fear. On the other hand, if you want to reproduce your parents’ mode and feel incapable because of economics, social situations, or your emotional state, that evokes fear.
If you are waking up at night ruminating about “What ifs?” “What if they don’t make the team?” What if they have no friends?” … you are then both a sleep deprived and an anxious parent.
Anxiety is about the past or the future and rarely not what is going on right now. We, parents, also catastrophize. For example, “I know my teen is lying to me. My brother was a liar and never held a job.” Your brain doesn’t stop. This is evidence that you may be parenting from a place of fear.
So, maybe you are thinking. Is that such a bad thing? We all want the best for our children, and their health and safety are paramount. If threatened by real or imagined events, our blood pressure skyrockets. It is an instinctive reaction. We must contemplate what the result of that reaction may be. Do we lecture, react, or try to fix things? We all sometimes do. However, we must consider each situation on its merits and be mindful of our fear and anxiety.
Ask yourself questions like,
What is making me so afraid now?
Am I tired?
Am I just frustrated from work?
Am I angry at my spouse?
Is my fear, flight & freeze brain making good choices?
Be curious. If you think your child is depressed, is there evidence of that? If you worry your child is being left out, what has made you think so? Try to determine what is triggering your fear. What is the scenario for your trigger?
Use the pause technique.
Stop and breathe deeply.
Make reasonable and consistent rules and avoid the circumstances that can trigger you.
Working on how to avoid those situations is freeing and helps to reduce anxiety and fear.
A danger in parenting from a place of fear is your tendency to fix every problem. You rush to school if they leave homework on the kitchen table, edit their papers, and put the finishing touches on their diorama or science project. These and similar efforts are to protect our children and to make sure they are seen as competent. But we do a huge disservice because, without natural consequences, our children will not learn to remember things or take responsibility for themselves. They may even assume you believe they are incompetent and unable to defend themselves or complete tasks without you. Your worry provides some control and fixes for the moment, but it isn’t healthy for your child or you. We do it because we worry about others’ judgments. We fret that we aren’t good enough, our kids are not good enough, or our friends and family won’t see our kids as good enough. Fear of being judged is a great contributor to parents’ fear.
We have established that we live in an age of anxiety and pervasive social media. We often believe our children, particularly our tweens and teens, are in constant danger. We then get on the crazy train of overscheduling, overdoing, and overreacting—we helicopter or snowplow. Those are terms for styles of parenting that are frequently written about today.
The hovering, helicopter parent who fixes everything described above, or perhaps worse, the snowplowing parent who eliminates every possible obstacle for their child so they can be ‘successful’ and never experience disappointment or failure, that approach is so exhausting. In addition, the parent is not modeling self-care at all and can become burned out or resentful.
Anxiety is contagious.
Your anxiety becomes your child’s go-to mode of feeling and reacting. Kids who are shielded from failure have a more challenging time learning the value of making mistakes and the value of problem-solving. Feelings of self-doubt and irresponsibility up the ante for shame and depression. When you wonder why when you suggested you might be able to help them raise their B in math to an A, they worry about your disappointment and anger. They shut down. When communicating with your kids, ask yourself if you are meeting their needs or yours.
Fear is the monster hiding under the bed.
Remember growing up, you worried about monsters under the bed, and your parents tried to dissuade you – perhaps sweetly but dismissively – “There is no such thing as monsters?” But you know better, so fear and anxiety overtake us. I get it.
My oldest daughter began to suffer from paralyzing anxiety when she entered High School. She lost interest in playing the piano, her schoolwork, and her best friends. With a new crowd, she abused drugs and was clearly struggling. I responded with fear, anxiety, and many what-if worries about her future. My anxiety increased hers and her avoidance of me. It also affected the entire family; she has two younger siblings. Everyone who loved and cared for me worried as well. It took a long time to get the right help, change the relationship, and reconnect.
Fear is harmful because it robs you of the present because you focus on your worries about what could happen.
Dr. Shefali Tsabary, a clinical psychologist and conscious family therapist, suggests: “When your relationship is as rooted in fear as it is in love; when the ratio of fear to love is skewed so that fear wins, our approach to our children creates the opposite of what we hope for.”
I am proposing that you parent from a place of trust—changing the milieu from anxiety to calm. A trusting parent knows their child has watched them model calm and problem-solving behavior. Then they feel confident that their child can figure out the issues in school and social situations. Furthermore, that parent knows their child will ask for help when they need it. Fear breeds controlling, self-serving parenting and interferes with caring and trust. Parents who respond to their children from a place of trust have kids who trust themselves and become the adults they are meant to be.
You can endlessly read about parenting styles: conscious parenting, joyful parenting, peaceful parenting, and positive parenting. Tips and strategies may differ, but all will advise you that connection is the critical ingredient to parenting from a place of trust. The bond you create with your child in their earliest days and through their tween and teen years will ensure greater chances for their emotional well-being through their adult lives. I encourage parents to adopt the emotional intelligence skill base as one means of connecting and restoring and repairing connections when necessary.
Self-awareness and regulation of your own emotions are key. If you have been exposed to the teachings of emotional intelligence, you leverage your self-awareness to build resilience in your child. What we do in the heat of the moment makes all the difference. Respond to those tantrums, meltdowns, and disappointments with empathy and authentic listening. Our children feel understood and not judged. They begin to realize that you are connecting, not correcting. Once you recognize you are parenting from a place of trust and love, you will not step back into fear.
When we develop and celebrate our self-awareness, we can let go of generational biases, which may be our history but don’t have to be our destiny. Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, professor, and author, says: “The best indicator of a child’s well-being is the parent’s self-understanding.” (Mindset: The New Science of Personal Transformation) Because you connect and encourage communication through listening without judgment, without interruption, without a fix, and without ego, you are modeling trust. They are watching you all the time, especially your tweens and teens. Your empathy enhances connection by letting them process the situation and make healthy choices and mistakes. When you lose it, and we all do, restore the connection through apology and telling them how much you love them. William Martin, an American author and philosopher of Taoism reminds us, “You do not have to make your children into wonderful people. You only have to remind them they are wonderful.”
So, dismiss the monster under your bed. No longer accept anxiety as the ruler of your thoughts and actions. It isn’t about perfection. It is about practicing the skills of communication, expressing emotions, and listening. You can then work on creating an environment where your children can become who they are meant to be and trust that they will get there. You have given them the gifts of space and endless support. They know you have their back. Trust trumps fear – theirs and yours.