It’s natural for parents to feel anxious about their children, but you’re doing them no favours in the long run, says Dr Rebecca Chicot
Human beings are the most committed parents in the animal kingdom. Our babies are delivered immature and need help to feed, keep clean and move. Having such complete responsibility for another tiny creature that we love means that anxiety about them is a natural part of being a parent.
It’s no wonder countless parents have crept up to their sleeping baby to double-check they’re breathing or spent the entire visit to the park telling their boisterous toddler to be careful. But where do natural feelings of concern spill into something that is stressful for the parent and suffocating for the child?
Children need to be able to fail and make mistakes in a secure, consistent environment. So-called ‘snow plough’ parents, who come between all difficulty, failure, pain and their child, might not be doing them a favour in the long run. It is better to be behind them than in front; be their secure base as they strike out in the world.
What is it like to be the child of an anxious parent?
Anxiety funs in families and is one of the most prevalent mental disorders in children. In trying to tease apart how anxiety might be passed on from parent to child I focused my PhD research on comparing the parenting style of anxious and relaxed mums* across a variety of games and tasks.
I remember being struck by how warm, fun and full of praise the relaxed mums were. By contrast, the anxious mums tended to be more critical and controlling during all the tasks and really worried about their ‘performance.’
This was particularly striking during a task where mum and child were asked to draw a house on an Etch A Sketch together, each operating one knob. The relaxed mums couldn’t have been less interested in what the house looked like; they praised their child’s efforts and the pairs laughed throughout the task. They worked as a team and the picture looked pretty terrible.
The most anxious mums, however, were really worried about getting the picture right. This made them critical and controlling of their child. Frequently, when they had to produce the diagonal roof (which requires the up button and the across button to be turned simultaneously), they took their child’s hand off the knob and took over. They ended up with a great picture of a house but an unhappy child.
Psychologists have found that anxious parents are more likely to be critical of their children, worry what people think of them (and their children) and display more fear and anxiety in common situations. Unfortunately, all these tendencies and feelings are more likely to instil fear and low confidence in their own children. This goes some way to explaining why anxiety runs in families (though anxious tendencies are inherited, too).
As a life-long worrier myself I want to reassure other parents that there are lots of ways you can prevent your own anxiety from becoming a problem for your child. I try to remember five P words to help reduce anxious behaviour around my children.
Personality: All children are different – some fearless and some cautious. This is partly down to an aspect of their inborn personality (called behavioural inhibition where some individuals are significantly more sensitive to the environment, be it loud noises, smells, etc). All parents will get to know their own child and be able to gauge their comfort zone around certain things, for example fireworks. Try to be reassuring and encouraging but avoid forcing them to do things that they find very frightening. Forcing children could result in them becoming more withdrawn and feeling less in control. So respect their personality and take things gently.
Play: Let them have a go themselves without micro-managing what they try to do. Babies and children live in the moment; they love to try new things and learn as they play.
Praise: Praise your child when they try things, especially praise persistence and hard work. Don’t just praise the end result.
Pretend: If you want to avoid passing on some of your own phobias or worries try to be brave for your child. Children look to their parents to guide how they should feel or behave in certain situations and will model their parents’ behaviour. Even if you are not keen on, say, slugs or parties, try to be as calm and reassuring as you can for your child so that they don’t learn to respond with fear and anxiety, too.
Performance: Try not to worry about your ‘performance’ as a parent. Most parents feel under pressure to be seen to parent in a certain way in public. Try to focus on the real relationship with your child and deal with situations in the way you know works with you and your child.
*In my research I studied mums as they were already coming to our lab for another study but would have loved to have included the children’s dads, too, had it been possible.
Dr Rebecca Chicot is one of the co-creators of the Essential Baby Care Guide DVDs, which were shortlisted for Best Innovation in the Mother & Baby Awards 2013. She has just launched the free Essential Baby Care Guide app with access to more than 150 vital baby care demos from the UK’s top expert organisations