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Navigating Parental Anxiety

Most parents and caregivers, including myself, want to raise independent, healthy, and happy children; however, this may feel as difficult as ever in today’s fast-changing world. We are highly connected through social media, and societal expectations of what “good” parenting and children should look like, which can contribute to the stress and anxiety caregivers experience. 

While it is natural for parents to worry about their children’s well-being, parental anxiety involves excessive and prolonged worrying as a caregiver. Parental anxiety can happen with children of any age and can be triggered by worries about a child’s developmental milestones, academic performance, socialization, and emotional and physical well-being. Signs and symptoms of parental anxiety include:

  • Overprotectiveness, overcontrolling, and avoidance behaviours, including restricting your child from participating in relatively safe activities or situations because you perceive them as unsafe.
  • Expecting ‘worst-case scenarios’, such as overestimating accidents happening to your child, especially when you are separated from them.
  • Vocalizing feelings of worry to others, sometimes in front of or even to your child.
  • Underestimating your child’s capabilities to handle challenging situations on their own.
  • Mental and physical exhaustion due to excessive worrying and ignoring your needs – which can lead to impatience and overreaction with your child.
The Effects of Parental Anxiety on Children

Although it is normal for parents to want to protect and help their children when they struggle, trying to overly control or fix their children’s problems may sometimes have the opposite effect. In fact, children of parents who suffer from anxiety disorders are more likely to experience anxiety issues than children of parents without clinical anxiety, though genetics may also play a role (Pereira et al., 2014). Despite good intentions, parents may unconsciously project their worries and expectations onto their children, leading to frustration and disconnection on both sides. Rather than complying with their parent’s wishes, children may feel misunderstood and inadequate in their parents’ eyes, which can impact their development of self-esteem.

Strategies to Manage Parental Anxiety

You may be wondering, what can parents do to cope? The good news is that parents can learn strategies to help them become less anxious caregivers. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that being a parent will always involve some degree of uncertainty, so learning how to be comfortable with change along the way will be beneficial. Doing so may help us manage our expectations, prepare for the unpredictability of the parenting journey, and preserve our connection to our children (Tsabary, 2023).

  • Recognize Triggers:
    Understandably, we parents can feel frustrated, angry, helpless, panicky, and even heartbroken when our children reject or defy our expectations. However, they are likely experiencing similar feelings, and since we parents inherently have more power in the parent-child relationship, the onus is on us to go inward, understand where our anxieties stem from, and start noticing how we respond to our children. For example, when our children don’t listen, do their chores, or finish their homework, we as parents may get upset and perceive them as disrespectful or lazy. Reflecting on our feelings and reactions may help us reveal and understand our own insecurities and how we may be projecting them onto our children.
  • Regulate Emotions:
    Developing this skill can be challenging, especially if we weren’t taught how to manage difficult emotions when we were growing up. However, research suggests that the way parents interact with their children, such as how we model and manage our anxiety, can help reduce anxiety symptoms in both parents and children (Chapman et al., 2022). Therefore, learning to regulate our emotions and invoke patience during stressful moments may help us remain calm and not act out on our feelings and judgments. Grounding exercises, like deep breathing and body movement, may also help.
  • Practice Self-Care:
    Make sure you are getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating well. Engaging in activities you enjoy, such as taking a bath, going on walks, or spending time in nature, can also help you manage anxiety when you feel overwhelmed by all the responsibilities that come with parenting. Taking these steps to care for yourself may improve your health and set a good example for your kids.
  • Lean on your support system: 

    It can be beneficial for parents to talk to other parents about the pressures involved in raising children. Talking about our parenting anxieties with others experiencing similar issues may help us feel less alone in our worries. 

When to Seek Help

It may be worth considering professional help if your anxiety is persistent, interferes with your daily functioning, affects your physical health, or impacts relationships, including the one with your children. Working with a therapist can offer parents a safe and non-judgmental space to explore their triggers and insecurities and develop emotional regulation skills that are crucial in navigating parental anxiety. At Searchlight Counselling, our therapists draw from various evidence-based therapeutic approaches, including Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, to support parents and caregivers with parental anxiety.

*Please note that ‘parents’, ‘caregivers’ and ‘guardians’ are used interchangeably in this article, and refer to all types of caregivers including parents, grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents and more. 

References

Chapman, L., Hutson, R., Dunn, A., Brown, M., Savill, E., & Cartwright-Hatton, S. (2022). The impact of treating parental anxiety on children’s mental health: An empty systematic review. Journal of Anxiety Disorders88, 102557.

Pereira, A. I., Barros, L., Mendonça, D., & Muris, P. (2014). The relationships among parental anxiety, parenting, and children’s anxiety: The mediating effects of children’s cognitive vulnerabilities. Journal of Child and Family Studies23, 399-409.

Tsabary, S. (2023). The parenting map: Step-by-step solutions to consciously create the ultimate parent-child relationship. HarperOne.

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Julie Row

Julie specializes in supporting individuals work through the complexities of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and life transitions, while recognizing the impact that societal structures like culture, gender, discrimination etc. can influence how we relate to ourselves and others. In her free time, Julie can be found singing in the car, going for walks with her partner and kids, watching concerts or musicals or daydreaming about her next Disney family vacation!

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Searchlight Counselling provides in-person and virtual therapy for individuals and couples in Burnaby, Vancouver, and across British Columbia. Specializing in BIPOC & 2SLGBTQIA+.