On My Mind: Parental worry


When it comes to our children, we parents are rarely at a loss for things to worry about: health, drugs, alcohol, accidents, school, sex, emotional upheavals, travel, the state of the planet. Will they be successful? Lead productive lives? Be happy? Contribute? Have enough money? Feel that their lives are meaningful? Suffer from blue moods and anxiety? And when we express our worrying, does it undermine their mental health?

My own anxiety about my son began when he was still a fetus. After the ultrasound, the doctor told us that the measurement of our son’s neck suggested that he had a rare condition that would result in either “a stillbirth or a neurologic disorder so severe that you don’t even want to hear about it.” During the two weeks that we were waiting for a second opinion — perhaps the most upsetting weeks of my life — I could hardly sleep, and thought about little else. As it turned out, our son just had a big neck. All that worrying for nothing.

Studies suggest that about half of worrying is a creative way to solve problems. But much of it is about negative ruminations about a future that we can’t control, such as when I worried about my son. When worrying becomes excessive, it actually gets in the way of problem solving. Two to five percent of people are consumed with these kinds of worries, and are defined as having generalized anxiety disorder.

Uncertainty is a disturbing state of mind — one in which we tend to imagine the worst. When people actually know the worst, they often are less anxious than when they wonder. Hence, the multiple uncertainties regarding our children’s lives and futures can be overwhelming.

Parents tell me that they worry when the kids are babies, toddlers, and teens, and as reported by part-time Vineyarder and psychologist Jane Martin, Ph.D., “no one tells you, but you still worry even after they are adults.” When Jane’s daughter returns to her home base in France, Jane knows that she’ll be up all night until she gets her daughter’s text that she is safe.

Sometimes parental worries go up in the summertime because, particularly with older children, in summer we see more of them, and the more they are around, the more they trigger worrying. I’ve heard it said that “once you are a parent, you will never sleep the same way again.” In addition to disturbing sleep, worrying can undermine pleasure and cause overeating. Life is filled with risks; anxiety is a way of staying on guard, although often it amounts to little more than unproductive, negative preoccupation. It is said that anxiety consists of two components: an overestimation of danger and an underestimation of one’s ability to deal with it. We all need smoke detectors, but we don’t need them to register smoke within a five-mile radius of our homes. And the alarm doesn’t mean that the house is burning down.

A friend told me he believed that his father’s worrying about him was a way of expressing love and concern. Parents would not worry so much if they did not love their children so much. Wouldn’t it be great if our kids simply felt adored when we nagged them about the need to get serious about their schoolwork, or to do something meaningful with their lives, or not to drink so much? But since they don’t often feel that way, and since we will probably never succeed at eliminating our child-related anxieties, we need to learn to limit the negative impact of our worries on our children.

When parents excessively caution their kids, it can feel aggressive and suffocating. It can make children — no matter their ages — feel nervous and/or as though they are failing. It can make them view failures as catastrophes rather than as opportunities for learning and growth. As Confucius said, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” If we see our children’s falls as tragic, it makes it harder for them to get up.

Anxiety may be why parents (particularly in the United States) are less happy than nonparents. Parents in Russia, Hungary, and throughout Scandinavia are actually happier than nonparents, because it is thought that where there is a broader sense of community support, there is less worry about our children. My unscientific survey of parents suggests that short of major illness, parents’ most chronic worry regards whether their children will be “successful.” Perhaps that is less of a worry in socialist countries.

Jane Martin suggests that good parenting used to come out of the school of “benign neglect.” Now, she says, “parents are more involved in everything. Getting into college, summer plans, getting a job. We are in a competitive culture that is all about success. Everyone is overinvolved with their kids, and you never stop worrying. There is less tolerance for space.”

Journalist and frequent Vineyard visitor Alissa Quart, who has written three books on parenthood and social class, confirms Jane’s impression that parents today are more consumed with their children’s success. (See bit.ly/incomeobsessed.) “There is a dwindling social net, an increasing level of precariousness for families,” she says. “Fewer jobs are associated with pensions, and jobs may be shorter-term. Healthcare and affordable housing are harder to access. And many, many parents feel that they are alone with these hardships, while they are actually part of a national dilemma.”

But despite the fact that there are real things to worry about regarding our children, parents who feel their worrying is excessive can take steps to diminish their anxiety. Remember the airplane video that tells you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before trying to help anyone else. If you aren’t sleeping and eating well, aren’t feeling supported, and aren’t finding time for fun, it will be harder for you to deal with anxiety — and harder for you to be helpful to your children. Just as a parent may only be as happy as his unhappiest child, a child may only be as happy as her unhappiest parent. As almost all of us do from time to time, if you express your anxiety in the form of crabbiness, criticism, or controlling behaviors, it will backfire. Children (and the rest of us) respond by withdrawing, fighting back, and doing self-destructive things — rarely by simply complying. So calm yourself before expressing your concerns. If you can’t do that, think about finding help with psychotherapy, yoga, exercise, and/or meditation. You might think about a 12-step program like Al-Anon that counsels “turning it over to a higher power,” “letting go,” and praying for “the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.”

Also, rethink your child’s challenges, obstacles, and failures. Those are the times when there is the biggest opportunity for growth and learning. There are now programs at Smith College and elsewhere that celebrate failure (bit.ly/campusfailure).

If you don’t see your children’s challenges as opportunities, and you become stuck in the quicksand of worry, you will create anxiety and despair in your children and threaten your own health. I love this TED talk on “How to make stress your friend”: bit.ly/mcgonigalstress.

Instead of giving advice (or criticism) that comes from the anxious you, just listen. A father who was consumed with worry went on a long car trip with his daughter. He made a commitment to himself that he wouldn’t give any advice unless asked for it. When he did that, his daughter shared her ideas and concerns, and in the end they had a broad interchange about life and the future. They both came back feeling healed. Letting go of the illusion of control can be a huge relief for parent and child.

Do you wonder if parents today are more prone to worry than their predecessors? Maybe not. A few decades ago, when Fanny Jenkinson (former animal control officer Joannie Jenkinson’s grandmother-in-law) was close to 100 years old, her 80-year-old son Walter (the Chilmark bus driver) stopped by. He was recovering from prostate cancer. His mother pleaded with him to take it easy and stop work early. “Just a couple more hours,” he said. When he left, his mother told a friend, “I am so worried about him … These kids today never listen to their mother.”


Dr. Charles Silberstein is the chief psychiatrist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and writes regularly about issues Islanders have with mental health.