Parenting Anxiety and the Danger of "What If" Thinking

By Jen Taylor | Kids 5-12

Aug 08

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?

About the Author

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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