How to break the habit of fretting over your kids
Published: March 26, 2019
By: Shannon Dean
I admit it. In my filing cabinet, hidden behind medical records, I have a folder on the AFM virus — an extremely rare polio-like illness — just in case. I have always been a worrier, but when I became a mother, my fretting reached crippling new heights. Suddenly, I panicked over perceived threats like terrorism, school shootings, abductions and rare childhood diseases.
I know that I am not alone. A recent survey revealed that over half of polled mothers were “obsessed” with concerns about their children. No surprise there. When I share my unease with other moms, they give me a knowing, sympathetic nod. We’re all struggling under the weight of bearing responsibility for the children we love more than anything. At the same time, we suspect our anxiety is inching toward excessive levels.
How Much Is Too Much?
A parent’s worry is instinctual and essential. We have a sixth sense about our kids’ well-being because it helps us to keep them safe. So we don’t want to silence our worries. But there is an important distinction between what’s constructive and what’s toxic.
“When worry becomes toxic, it ceases to serve as the built-in alarm system nature meant it to be and instead becomes a painful problem,” says Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Worry: Controlling It and Using It Wisely.
Most experts agree that worry is destructive if it causes regular emotional distress or interferes with daily functioning. Fixating on “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios is a red flag. Such rumination can turn an innocent concern into something worse.
For example, the worry “my child is struggling with his homework” could morph into “my child is not at grade level,” then move on to “he’ll never get into a decent college” and end up with “I’m not a good enough parent.”
Short and Long-Term Consequences
Although many of us hope that a good dose of worry staves off disaster, the opposite is true. Misplaced worry can severely affect our health, our self-esteem, our productivity and our family’s well-being. Even worse, experts warn that chronic worriers can pass an anxious outlook to their kids.
“How you live will influence how your children live,” explains Cindi McMenamin, author of 10 Secrets to Becoming a Worry-Free Mom. “What you worry about, they will worry about, too.”
A Breakable Cycle
“It’s vital to understand that chronic worry is a habit, which with conscious effort can be broken,” says Dr. Beverly Potter, author of The Worry Wart’s Companion. Although breaking this cycle may take effort, the results are worth it. Women who learn the live now-worry later approach (used by many men) suffer much lower rates of depression than overthinking women.
Here are five tips that may help:
- Define The Real Issue: When concerns spiral out of control, identify what you’re truly worried about. Our darkest fears stem from scenarios that may never materialize. Rather than imagining vague, bleak outcomes, identify the specific concern at play. Once you define it, take action and move on.
- Regain Control: A perceived lack of control fuels worries. Instead of being paralyzed by fear, seek reliable information to determine if fears are rational. If they are, take manageable steps toward a solution. For example, address concerns about your child’s academic performance by finding one immediate action, like setting up an appointment with his teacher or guidance counselor.
- Reach Out: Avoid worrying alone. Share concerns with your spouse, a trusted friend or family member who can help with perspective. If no one is immediately available, ask yourself what your most trusted confidant would say.
- Find Productive Distractions: Lose yourself in comforting activities like scrapbooking, reading or a good movie. Exercise, yoga and meditation are also excellent options.
Exercise relieves stress and releases endorphins that enhance physical and emotional well-being. Yoga reprograms your body to relax while meditation encourages your mind to follow.
- Surrender: Once you’ve identified, shared and addressed your worries, the last healthy step is to let go.
Hand your concerns to the universe or a higher power. There are many ways to accomplish this. Suggestions are praying, meditating or watching journal pages burn. Trusting in wise, compassionate intervention releases the worries that no longer serve you.
Changing the worry habit takes continuous effort and self-policing, but even small amounts of self-awareness yield noticeable results. Yesterday, not only did I allow my kids to play in the rain, but I joined them. Although I was tempted to worry about their health, my floors and our dinner, I allowed myself to enjoy the moment. My kids were thrilled and, in the end, all was well.
I now realize that my compulsive worry was an attempt to prevent anything from ruining moments like this. How ironic that if I had worried a little less, I might have had them all along.