Are you an anxious parent? Do you constantly worry about  your children? Are you afraid to let your child experience failure, hurt, or disappointment? You are not alone. Anxiety in children is on the rise. It seems to be directly related to a trend in anxious parenting.

Anxious Parents Do Too Much For Their Children

Recently, I ran across  this video from ATTN: that reported that 52% percent of high school graduates cannot change a tire. And many do not have other basic living skills like boiling an egg or sewing a button. This is not because they are not capable. And it is not because they don’t have home economics or drivers’ education in schools.

It is largely because anxious parents do things for their children so that they don’t have to worry about something bad happening. What if he burns down the kitchen? What if she can’t loosen the lug nuts? I am worried that…

Anxiety and Mental Health

Postpartum anxiety is more common in women than depression. Both anxiety and depression are serious conditions. They can be treated with counseling and/or medications and should not be ignored. (If you think you are suffering from either, please contact your physician or a mental health professional).

Anxiety can be genetic. It is a trait often seen across generations in families. However, anxious thinking and anxious behavior is also LEARNED. If children are constantly hearing the parent say, “Be careful” then they are more likely to also feel worried.

Are You Teaching Your Children to Be Afraid?

There is a really cool (but very old) video from the documentary Life’s First Feelings about how babies read facial expressions of their parents. Go the the 34 minute mark to see this part:

It shows a mother making a scared face to her baby so that he will not cross a line that looks like a “cliff” from the baby’s point of view. When given the OK, the baby safely explores and crosses the ledge.

So what if you are constantly sending the DANGER warning when there is really not a ledge. You pass on anxious ways of thinking and anxious behaviors to your child. They learn it from watching you.

How Anxiety Affects Parenting Behaviors

As a society, we are so worried now about something BAD happening to our children. We are worried about being called a BAD parent. You see this when something bad happens to someone else. The social media comments run rampant with , “This is why I don’t allow my child to go swimming. That is why I never let my child do that.” I think we are sort of patting ourselves on the back when it’s not our kid.

The Danger of “What if?”

Most parents have some form of “What if?” parenting anxieties that are holding their children back. I hear them often.

  • What if he fails second grade?
  • She might burn herself when using the stove?
  • I’m afraid he will get hurt.
  • What if she gets kidnapped by a child molester while playing in the yard?

As a result, parents are keeping their children inside to “keep them safe.” They are supervising their interactions at parks and playgrounds and intervening with the correct instructions. “Don’t jump off that, you could hurt yourself. Don’t do it that way. “ They are doing things for their children like picking out their clothes and running their bathwater.

It’s true. I once had a parent of a 10-year-old boy that could not take a shower without the mother’s help. “What if the water is too hot?” Well, he’s 10. If the water is too hot, he will turn on the cold water or move out of the way. And guess what? He did.

The “What If Something Bad Happens?” mentality is so pervasive that it has actually become a standard for good parenting. Well meaning people see this as protecting their children and they are doing it because they care and love their children.

What they have a harder time with is allowing the child to have the room to take risks. It is difficult to give children the space to possibly fail. Guess what? Most times, kids figure it out. They catch themselves at the last minute or they fall and they recover. Or they get burnt and know better for next time. Or they fail second grade and try harder the second time around.

What Anxiety Does To  Children

The danger to our children is that they hold on to the same anxieties, fears and doubts.

  • What if I make the wrong choice?
  • I might look stupid?
  • My mom might get mad.

Instead of having the natural curiosity and desire for independence, these children are filed with doubt about their abilities and are dependent on their parents. When they try something new or hard and it doesn’t go well right away, they quit. They demand help, they throw a tantrum or they just plain give up.

I believe that is because they are afraid to fail. We are afraid to let them struggle. But it is in the struggle that learning takes place. It is with curiosity that new discoveries are made.

What to Say Instead:         

 I think that is  something you can do. 
And then wait and see what happens. You can also do safety planning ahead of time by asking questions like, “What would you do if there was a fire?” “Who could you call for help.” “What things will you need before you get started?”

There’s a popular poem by Erin Hanon that I hope will motivate you to reframe “What If” parenting from the negative, anxiety based place into the place of possibility and discovery.

“What if I fall?,

oh my darling,

what if you fly?”

See the entire poem here.

I ask, what if we let go of our parenting anxieties and let our kids fly?

Why a white daisy?

Apparently, when people  are asked to draw a flower, the first one that comes to mind for a majority of people is the daisy shape.   This single flower (just the flower part without the stem or any leaves and on a solid black background) was show to study participants after being shown a high-arousal negative image. Examples of high-arousal negative images include awful things like violence, injuries and car crashes.  Two trials were conducted:  in the first subjects were shown a high arousal image and then either a) the flower image b) a mosaic of fragments of the flower image or c) a visual fixation point.  In the second trial, the high arousal image was followed by either a) the flower image, b) a chair (deemed a neutral image) or c) a blue sky with clouds (deemed a positive non-floral image).   Systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings were taken throughout the experiments.  

As expected, mean blood pressure was lower when participants viewed the flower versus the fixation point or the mosaic flower,  but what was unexpected is that the flower image actually reduced mean blood pressure to a level lower than the baseline.  Both the flower image and the blue sky had a similar positive impact in changing mood from negative to positive (with the blue sky having the most overall impact).  However, only the flower (not the sky) caused a reduction in mean blood pressure.  It was determined that viewing a simple flower image could in fact change a negative mood into a more positive one and also decrease blood pressure. 

The power of the single flower image was then studied in regards to salivary cortisol levels.  During this study, the high-arousal images were once again paired with the flower image, the flower fragment mosaic or the fixation point.  Once again, only the flower image was shown to significantly decrease stress during the recovery phase. One final examination looked at fMRI images of the brain during these conditions.  Through this imagery it was discovered that the flower image was effective in decreasing the amygdala-hippocampus activation that occurred after viewing the high arousal images. Researchers speculated that the flower image was a distraction tool that was helped prevent the recall of the stressful images.  

The brief viewing of this single flower image was shown to be effective at reducing negative emotions and created better functioning of both the cardiovascular and endocrine systems! Having such a simple tool available to help reduce stress and regulate unpleasant emotions and is one possible tool for interrupting ruminating thoughts or unpleasant flashbacks.  

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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