6 Causes of Parental Anxiety – Where does it come from, and what should we do about it?

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The vast majority of the parents I work with are struggling with some form of anxiety related to their parenting. Sometimes this fits the clinical definition of anxiety, but other times it is just continual self-doubt or fear of ‘messing up’ their children.

In this post I’m going to discuss six of the most significant causes of parental anxiety including the newest cause -COVID-19 – which amplifies the other five.

Cause #1 – Unwanted Opinions

We fear our children being seen too spoiled, too selfish, too nice, too overweight/underweight, too addicted to screens, too active, too lazy, too loud, too quiet, too stubborn, too obedient —shall I go on?

We struggle to identify the “just right” qualities we hope our children will develop and waste untold amounts of mental and physical energy trying to manipulate our children into developing these “just right” qualities that we can’t even fully  identify.  And the primary way we evaluate our children’s qualities is through what other people think of them – at school; at the doctor’s office; in the checkout line at the supermarket.

Everyone has an opinion on parenting.  It’s impossible to please them all, and we shouldn’t even try.  We  have to find our own North Star so we can set goals that are uniquely right for our family, so that when the little everyday challenges arise, we’re not just reacting to them based on how we feel in that moment.

I know how hard it is to look behind the headlines and figure out what is true, what is important, and what it means to you.

Once you find your parenting North Star, you’ll be able to get to the root of the problems you’re having with your child and have a plan to confidently address these, which means you can stop feeling overwhelmed by the constant barrage of competing opinions from relatives, friends, and the media.

Cause #2 –Isolation

Loneliness is both very widespread and seriously problematic in Western Society. Parents of young children are particularly vulnerable to isolation and loneliness.

According to psychologist Aisling Leonard-Curtin, loneliness and isolation of parents can lead to anxiety, depression, and parental burnout.

Drs. Moïra Mikolajczak, whom I’ve interviewed for the Your Parenting Mojo podcast, and Isabelle Roskam have researched parenting burnout and how to address it. They’ve  noted that burnout is much more common in Westernized cultures than in other places around the world.

If you can believe it, Western parents with 1 or 2 children were more likely to experience burnout than African parents with 8-9 children.

This is at least partly because of the very different beliefs about raising children. The African phrase “it takes a village” to raise a child means that we need social support to raise a child. The task is too enormous for one or two people to do on their own. In the non-Western World, there is much more social support, whereas in the West, parents are largely left on their own. Compounding the problem, parents in Western cultures often feel they are solely responsible for making sure their children develop strong cognitive and social/emotional skills in addition to being healthy and happy.

When we feel that we’re on the hook for all of it, no-one else can help, and we’ll be judged if we get it wrong, it’s not surprising that we feel anxious about our children.

Cause #3 – Media Sensationalism

The media in general grabs onto any parenting issue that can be sensationalized to draw interest. Rather than presenting nuanced findings from research, correlations and anecdotes are presented as scientific fact. Creating controversy is how they expand their audience, but slight correlations or surprising results from small studies have to be discussed in more nuanced ways. Unfortunately, that practice would be bad for the business of generating clicks for advertising views.

The debate about screen time for children is a perfect example of how the media creates anxiety for parents. Headlines, like “Scientists finally know what screen time does to your toddler’s brain,” promise definitive information and try to guilt parents with assertions about screen time slowing brain development. The truth about screen time is far more nuanced, but that’s less likely to inspire heated Twitter debates or 20 million shares on Facebook.

Compounding the problem, scientific research and expert opinions on parenting have changed substantially in the last hundred years. Best practices in psychological research have definitely improved since the days when pregnant mothers were advised to “avoid thinking of ugly people,” to avoid producing unattractive children.

Unfortunately, the combination of poor research and media sensationalism gives some people the impression that all expert advice is worthless as evidenced by the constant, dramatic shifts seen in the media. Parents absolutely need a reliable resource for research-based information regarding child development and parenting.

Cause #4 – You’re not on the same page as your partner

When I interviewed Dr. Laura Froyen, she explained that parenting and discipline is one of the most common areas where couples disagree. Making matters worse, seeing parental conflict about parenting can be very upsetting for children. It can lead to self-blame, guilt, and insecurity.

 

On the other hand, children learn about conflict resolution and problem solving within their family. If parents can work together as a team, to resolve conflicts and solve problems, children will learn that people who love each other can disagree and work through their problems respectfully.

 

Many of us grew up in homes with poor examples of conflict and as a result learned that it is uncomfortable and best avoided. Dr. John Gottman, a prolific couple’s researcher identified four conflict starters as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These argument inciters are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Contempt
  4. Stonewalling

The presence of these four characteristics of conflict is closely related to marital dissatisfaction and potentially even marital breakdown.

 

Gottman’s research shows that successful couples don’t avoid conflict; they actually welcome it as an opportunity to connect with their partner, to experience acceptance and understanding within a significant attachment relationship.

 

Getting on the same page with your partner may seem impossible if you are coming from extremely different backgrounds, and when you and your partner don’t know how to discuss disagreements without the Four Horsemen becoming involved.

 

It can be very difficult to overcome communication habits that have become ingrained, but with the right information and participation by both parties, it is possible.  While it’s true that the only person you can really change is yourself, it’s much easier to make progress if your partner isn’t knowingly or unknowingly doing things that trigger you and take you back to square one each time.

Cause #5 – Parenting is hard!

If you’ve made it this far into the post, you probably don’t need much elaboration on this.  Children are demanding!

Food, messes, safety, potty training, bedtimes, and sibling rivalry create a never-ending drain on our energy.

Then there are the tantrums!

Somehow toddlers seem to have magical powers that help them discern the moments when you are the most exhausted, anxious, busy, or distraught–that impeccable sense of timing should serve them well someday, but that’s little comfort when you’re just trying to get out of the grocery store without a giant canister of cheese curls.

We know young children are learning and developing at an incredibly fast pace, and it is really hard for parents to keep up!

One path forward here is to understand a little more about your child’s development.  Research has shown that parents who understand more about their child’s development have more positive interactions with their children.  This may well be because parents who understand developmental milestones don’t put unrealistic expectations on their children.

For example, 56% of parents surveyed by the organization Zero to Three thought that children under age 3 should be able to resist the urge to do something that the parent has forbidden, but actually this ability often develops between the ages of 3.5-4 – or even later for some children.

If we are continually expecting our children to comply with our wishes when their brain structures don’t yet allow them to do this, we’re making parenting even more difficult for ourselves.

Cause #6 – Parenting and the pandemic

COVID-19 has amplified almost every anxiety-producing aspect of parenting young children.

How can we make sure our children are ‘doing okay’ or exceling cognitively, socially, and emotionally when socialization is limited and schools are closed?

Where can we turn for support when some relatives are isolating and those willing to take the risk to come to our homes and provide childcare pose a risk that we’re not comfortable taking?

What is the truth about the risks posed for children? Are they immune to the virus? (Of course, they aren’t, but the message is out there nonetheless.) Will it have any impact on them? Can they spread it to adults? Are they less likely to contract the virus? Will the virus cause long-term problems for them even if they don’t get terribly sick? If a vaccine emerges, will it be safe enough to give to them? Will it be worse for them to get the virus, or miss out on school?

How are we supposed to co-parent effectively with our partner when we’re together ALL the time?

And how can we do all this while we’re working remotely as well?

One way is to shift from a mindset of scarcity (“there is never enough of me to go around; I can’t do it all…” to a mindset of abundance (“I am enough.  There is enough of me to go around.”). 

Yes, we need to advocate for better social safety nets.  And while we still don’t have them, we can shift our own mindset, which changes the way we feel about the situation and the way we respond to others.

What is the solution?

Parents need unbiased information and non-judgmental support. Combined, these two components combat the conflicting advice, the isolation, and the media sensationalism. With solid information and strategies, parents can approach the incredibly difficult task of parenting from common ground as a team, using strategies that are grounded in a clear understanding of their children’s brain development.

To help, I’m bringing back my popular Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership. If you love the research-based information you hear on the Your Parenting Mojo podcast and read on the blog but struggle to apply the ideas in your real life with your unique family, then the membership is designed for you.

New this year, I’ve restructured the membership to make it even more immediately useful to you.  When you join, you get immediate access to three or 12 modules of content (depending on which option you select).  You can download a Guide to walk you through a series of activities, or watch a video presentation or listen to an audio read-through.  No matter how you learn, I’ve got you covered.

There are pre-recorded Q&As available to watch immediately – not hours-long calls that you have to wade through to find the nuggets of useful information, but a series of 5-10 minute videos with each one addressing a different challenge – so you can find exactly the support you need for your specific problem, and fast.

You’ll also connect with like-minded parents in a supportive private community, and can opt to join a small group of parents to help you bring your learning to life by taking small but meaningful steps toward your goals.

In the first module of the membership, we’ll create some breathing room by developing tools to dramatically reduce the number of tantrums at your house. We’ll introduce a Problem Solving Conversation Tool to help you find solutions to those problems that seem to recur again and again so you can get out of that negative cycle.

In the second module, you’ll learn to parent as a team with your partner.  You’ll figure out where you need to become more aligned in your approaches, and where it’s OK to disagree.  And you’ll gain some new tools to approach these conversations with your partner in a way that doesn’t get their back up but instead invites them to share how they’re really feeling, so you can do the same.

During the third module, you’ll set a family vision and goals based on your unique family values, and you’ll learn how to align daily interactions with long-term goals.  Because if you’re trying to raise a child who is independent but you step in and take over every time they struggle, there’s a misalignment between your goals and what your child is actually learning about how the world works.

These three modules form the core content, and you can choose to start with just those.  Or you could take your family life  to the next level and use your new tools and skills to address topics like raising healthy eaters, navigating screens, and supporting siblings. In each module, you’ll make a plan with goals that are both based on research-based ideas and aligned with your values.

One parent who is in the membership recently said “I think one thing I love about your work is it just makes it OK to hang out, enjoy and do what you want to with your family. Just be together, talk to each other, share yourselves and do what you need. No need to worry…You’ve cured my anxiety about all things parenting.”

Click here to learn more about the Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership, and to sign up.  Enrollment is now open!

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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership

She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com

And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school

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