I don’t when it happened, exactly, but I recently realized that my kids are in the sweet spot. They’ve reached that magical age where I can drink my coffee while it’s still piping hot. It’s bittersweet, at best. On the one hand, I love the sound of their voices as they run off to play together each morning. They get lost in their imaginations for as long as time will allow, and that is a very good thing. On the other hand, I miss the baby and toddler days. I miss pajama walks in the mornings with cold coffee in my hand and my son strapped to my chest. Also? They take a lot of chances these days. And that can be anxiety-producing.
Just the other day they cleared the couch of all pillows and soft things in an effort to maximize space for couch diving. Over and over again they stood on the the coffee table and took flying leaps toward the couch, mostly with their eyes closed. The little voice inside my head practically shouted out in terror, “Stop them! They’ll miss the couch, smash their heads on the hardwood floor, and end up in the ER!” But, my inside voice can be a bit of a worrier, so I sat back, smiled, and enjoyed my coffee while they jumped. Sure enough, one of them hit the hard back of the couch right on the forehead. There were tears (a lot of them), hugs, and expressions of empathy. And then they ran off to jump on a bed (or something more daring, I’m sure).
You can argue that I could have prevented the head bump by stopping them and encouraging a safe version of them game. I could have put the pillows back on the couch, for instance, or I could have piled the pillows on the floor and encouraged them to jump into the pillows. Both reasonable solutions. But kids need to test their own physical boundaries. They are full of ideas, some of them better than others, and they need to put those ideas into action – that’s how they learn and grow. To hinder that impulse to take healthy risks because of the threat of concussion, no matter how minor, would be to hinder their development and teach them to hold back. Do we want to raise confident kids who know when to take a risk or do we want to raise anxious kids who stand back and watch?
A lot has been made of “irrational parenting” since the Maryland couple was charged with unsubstantiated child neglect for allowing their children to walk home from the park without supervision. Are we a generation of anxious parents? If so, what is all of that anxiety doing to our children?
Anxiety has a trickle down effect, which means that your worries can trigger worries in your children. In fact, one study showed that children experienced higher anxiety levels when their parents modeled anxious behaviors. What does that really mean when it comes to day-to-day parenting? It means parents need to find ways to cope with their anxious thoughts so that they can allow their children to learn and grow free from added worries.
1. Know your triggers. The key to putting the brakes on anxious thoughts is understanding where those thoughts originate. You have to spend some time identifying the sources (or triggers) of your worries so that you can learn to cope with them. Keep a log of the anxious thoughts that pop into your head throughout the day. Note the time of day, where your kids are, what they’re doing and how worried (on a scale of 0-10) you actually feel. Look for patterns. Does giving up control by way of dropping your kids on a play date cause you to panic? Do the high monkey bars cause you to break out in a sweat? Once you establish the patterns, you can figure out how to reduce your parental anxiety.
2. Practice the art of self-talk. Talking back to your worries is a great way to reduce them. I do this every time I get on a plane. Worries get out of control when we allow irrational thoughts to build and grow. It’s like a snowball — the more irrational thoughts you pick up along the way, the bigger (and more debilitating) the anxiety becomes. Ground your irrational thoughts in reality and talk them down in size in two easy steps: First, identify the irrational thoughts and create rational replacements. You might, for example, replace “I know my child will fall and break his arm if he tries those monkey bars” with “My child is strong and confident and can conquer those bars with practice.” Second, practice talking back to your worries…out loud. Yes, I know, it feels weird at first. But talking back to your worries gives you power over them, and that will help you reduce your overall anxiety.
3. Take time for you. It’s no big secret that parenting can be stressful at times. It can feel there are always millions of things to do and very little time to slow down. You have to learn to prioritize your own needs. A healthy diet and moderate exercise can decrease anxiety. So can adequate sleep and downtime. Don’t cheat yourself in your attempt to meet all of the needs of your children. It will deplete your energy and leave you feeling exhausted and anxious. Find an exercise routine that works for you and enlist support of friends so that you can stick to it. Create your own bedtime routine (just like you do for your kids) and be certain that you stick to it. Give yourself the gift of time to just be you.
4. Find calming hobbies. Worry is a very normal part of life. It happens. It’s excessive worry that can become a problem and trickle down to your kids. Instead of focusing every ounce of energy on your kids and what they’re doing, find hobbies that make you feel calm. I love to read, and that keeps my worries away, so I try really hard to factor in time to read each night after I put the kids to bed (even when I’m exhausted.) Can’t find time alone? Include your kids! I recently included my daughter in one of my other favorite relaxing activities: knitting. Now we can sit and knit together while we chat and catch up.
5. Keep a worry journal. Writing down your negative thoughts in a journal and replacing them with positives at the end of the day can help you get your worries out and work through your feelings. I often ask clients to keep a “3 Good Things” journal. First, write down your three biggest stressors of the day. You don’t have to fill pages explaining them, just write them down. Then write down the three best things that happened during the day. Think small — consider the minor moments that brought you happiness (yes, the chance to drink a hot cup of coffee can be one of them!). Focusing on the small moments at the end of the day can help you approach the next day with a positive attitude. It also encourages you to remain present, even when the days are long.