Anxious Parents, Anxious Children

Anxious Parents, Anxious Children

Why anxious parents aren’t really protecting kids from life.

A few years ago I had a camper who lost it. I can’t tell you where she’s from or anything else about her except to say that at age 12, this lovely child fell apart. I’d known her for years and she’d always been wonderful, a joy to be around.

Then, mysteriously, anxiety stole her well-being.

She cried all the time, she talked non-stop about being anxious. At first we listened, listened… and listened. But nothing helped. Finally, with some expert help, we came to understand that this lovely child was suffering from significant anxiety and it was beyond us to help her.

Since then I’ve come to understand anxiety a bit. Why? Because I see so much of it. Not always that severe, but significant enough to compromise kids’ well-being. The rise of the anxious child had been dramatic in the past decade.

Is this the fault of a changed world? Or is it we, the parents, who unknowingly inflict anxiety on our kids? Is it our fault?

Oh, the irony of being the first generation of parents in history to professionalize parenting, and to discover that so many of our kids have self esteem issues and don’t feel as comfortable in their skin as we’d hoped – and planned.

And there’s the rub – We planned! We went into parenting believing we’d do it better than our parents did, because we’d know more… and control more. We belong to the first generation of professional parents. We have blogs, speechmakers, parenting and school consultants, and a section in the Kindle bookstore with 32,172 titles! All these experts are telling us how to do it….  perfectly. Which is of course impossible and makes us simultaneously well-informed and over-controlling, thanks to the illusion of possible parenting perfection.

We planned! We went into parenting believing we’d do it better than our parents did, because we’d know more… and control more. We belong to the first generation of professional parents.

This enticing illusion comforts us – in the short term. Whoopee, I have control over my childrens’ lives! I can keep them safe… and happy! But over time this desire for – and fantasy of – control – makes us feel more anxious. It’s a paradox. The more we try to control their lives, the more anxious we get because  there is no such thing as true control over another human’s life. And their road does have bumps. The more anxious we get, guess who inherits our anxiety? It’s more contagious than the flu!

The other problem with trying to make everything right for our kids is that we then shield them from developing their own resourcefulness. By protecting them from failure, from hurt, from everything negative, we deny them the opportunity to pick themselves back up from defeats and hurts, from boo-boos both physical and psychological. So they don’t learn those big important life skills.

Even more damaging to their sense competence and self-worth, every time we over-protect our kids, we’re sending them a clear nonverbal message: “You’re not resourceful. You can’t manage this on your own so I have to do it for you.”

This is not a helpful message. It’s how our anxiety grows theirs.

Our fear about the world is the second reason for being control freaks. Is the world a scarier place than the one we grew up in? Is there more abuse, more bullying, are there more attacks on children? Most studies say no but we have so much more information on those perils because we’re parenting in the instant info age – which raises our anxiety level, which in turn raises our desire for control.

Every time we over-protect our kids, we’re sending them a clear nonverbal message: “You’re not resourceful. You can’t manage this on your own so I have to do it for you.”

The problem of information is the third reason for our difficulty. We know too much, and our appetite for info about our kids is insatiable. This is not helpful. Our addiction to info about them does not make their lives better – or ours. It likely has the opposite affect on both us and them. Take the story of the bicycle. My young adult daughter rides her bike everywhere, including in the winter. When she comes home for dinner, I experience anxiety about her riding her bike back downtown, and I make her call me when she arrives. She says I’m silly, because the other six nights of the week, I neither know her whereabouts nor require a phone call when she gets home. She’s right. In this case (and in too many others) my knowledge does not make her safer.

The thing is – cutting the umbilical cord is the hardest ting we do. From the moment a child is born, we are programmed to love and protect that child. It comes naturally. Letting go does not. Letting go of our children, giving them space to fail, to hurt, to suffer life’s misfortunes, child-size, is the hardest task before us. And perhaps the most important, if we are to telegraph to them and to ourselves that we trust them to manage. That we believe in their ability. That we feel safe and we trust that they will be safe. And that’s a very tall order – for us.

Joanne Kates

About Joanne Kates

Since 1989 Joanne Kates has been Director of Camp Arowhon, a residential children’s summer camp in Algonquin Park, Ontario. Camp Arowhon has been home away from home for children since 1934; under Joanne’s leadership it is celebrated for pioneering achievements in creating social safety for children. Joanne developed the Camp Arowhon Social Safety Tool Kit, which includes anti-bullying prevention and intervention strategies that have made Arowhon a haven from bullying and girl cliques. Joanne speaks on parenting at schools snd community organizations. Her writing on parenting appears in The Globe and Mail and Post City Magazines.

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