Family counseling advice to manage the unpredictable or dangerous.
By Dan Peters Ph.D.
I have known many adults who describe themselves as not worrying at all before having children and then found themselves worrying quite a bit after their children were born. I also know many people who worried prior to having kids, and now worry even more now that they are parents.
Of course, there is nothing more precious and important to us than our children—it’s hardwired into our DNA! The parent-child bond not to mention the commitment and responsibility mean we devote ourselves to our offspring. This fact has not changed over time and never will.
Our early worry and fear start right at the beginning: “Is he breathing?” “Is she sleeping on her back?” ”Did he latch on?” and doesn’t ever stop regardless of age. Yes, it is our job to keep our kids safe, particularly when they are young, but it is also our job to instill a sense of competence and confidence in our children. Remember when your toddler would fall and look up at you to determine how to feel and react? Most of the time, short of a very bad fall, if you smile and say, “You are okay,” your child picks themselves up and keeps moving on. Alternatively, if a parent has that concerned and worried look on their face, the child will cry and not be okay.
When our children are young keeping them safe is not only easier but also seems to be simpler: young toddlers should not run into the street, small children should not swim without an adult, and tweens should wear a helmet when riding a bike.
As our kids get older, “dangerous” and “risky” situations appear and these will test our parental judgment. Personally, and professionally I see how we all base our parenting decisions on our own life experience and the belief system our parents taught to us.
“Can I stay out later tonight?”
“Can I go to a concert just with my friends?’
“My friends and I all want to go to the beach for the day, ok?”
“Can I go to the city with my friends?”
“Can I go to the big party? There aren’t going to be any parents but it will be fine!”
Here’s another example, parents who were given a lot of freedom as a child and adolescent, often go in one of three directions: they give their child as much freedom as they had because that’s what they know and/or they liked the freedom; they restrict their child from too much freedom because they didn’t like it and perhaps had some bad experiences; or, they try to find the middle ground and a combination of the above. I remind parents to ask this: “Why am I worried? Is this about my child or is it really about me?”
Many of you reading this have read Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. In it, he offers some sage advice when he states that it is not the answer that we give our kids about what they are asking but that they know we care enough to think about what they are asking before we answer.
We need to remember that our kids are trying to grow, explore, become independent, and want to feel good about themselves and their decisions. We need to be aware of the message we are giving our children. As they age, they are grown up versions of the toddlers who fall and look to us about how to react. Are we conveying to our kids the world is scary and bad things usually happen? Are we discussing both the pros and cons of what they are asking to do? Are we showing them that we trust them enough to give them some freedom, maybe even a little more than we are comfortable with, to show them we believe in their ability to make good decisions? It goes without saying, that the space and freedom you give your child should be based on their chronological age, their maturity, and what you feel is reasonable.
So yes, it is normal for parents to worry about their kids. And yes, our worry and fears do impact our children and can be transmitted to them. But we can use strategies to manage situations that seem unpredictable, dangerous, or risky:
1. Take a deep breath! Count to 10 if you need to!
2. Don’t give your immediate and very first answer right away.
3. Ask your child questions about why they want to do what they are asking to do and why it is important to them.
4. Tell them that you want to take time alone to think about it, or if relevant, to discuss it with your spouse or partner.
5. Ask yourself why you are thinking about the situation the way you are and try to link it to a prior experience or belief you have in your own history.
6. Ask yourself about the consequences of saying “no” and on the flip side the what will happen if you say “yes.”
7. When you give your child/tween/teen your answer focus on the process about the pros and cons, and talk about what you are comfortable with or not and how you reached your decision.
In the end, your relationship with your child matters most. At some point, you will probably need to take a small chance and give your child more freedom than you might be ready for. We have to take risks and so do our kids (within reason). They are growing and we want them to feel confident in themselves in the world. We, as parents, are constantly growing too. We must be aware of why we make the decisions we make and why. It is often easy to say, “no” and much harder to take the time to determine what may be best for your child’s development. Remember, it is not about the answer you give them as much as it is them knowing you care enough to think about it.
I have used this guiding principle with my own kids and in my work with parents. Don’t let the Worry Monster prevent you from having an opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation with your child or tween or teen and find the right resolution.