6 Tips for Managing Parental Anxiety
The moment you find out you’re expecting, your world changes.
You will go from caring for yourself to caring for a baby (and maybe multiple children), which is enough to make anyone feel a bit anxious. Parenting can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, but it can also come with lots of anxiety and worry.
On some levels, worrying about becoming a parent is completely normal. Parents will sometimes have doubts about their ability as a caretaker or fear their capability to keep their child safe.
“It is common for a new mom to worry about her infant’s wellbeing, and her ability as a caregiver,” according to Dr. Susan Park, a psychiatrist in New York City who specializes in perinatal depression and anxiety, in an article from Zencare.
But how do we know when the first-time parental worries cross the threshold from harmless thoughts to symptoms of an anxiety disorder?
Parental anxiety: Signs and symptoms
While it is normal for parents to worry about things like their children’s safety and development, anxiety is not a normal part of parenthood and can lead to negative outcomes for both parents and children. It’s important for parents to recognize the signs and symptoms of parental anxiety and seek appropriate support if needed.
Constant worry or fear – or incessant thoughts about certain fears – may be symptoms of anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some common physical signs and symptoms of anxiety may include:
- “Feeling nervous, restless or tense
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Having difficulty controlling worry
- Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety”
“Anxiety and worry are not the same thing,” says Debbie Thomas, EdD, APRN, based in Louisville, Ky in an article published by GeneSight in the Louisville Courier Journal. “Worry is situational. Anxiety is persistent and excessive – and it doesn’t go away when the specific cause of stress or distress is gone.”
According to an article in Healthline, the symptoms of parental anxiety may also include:
- “You may demonstrate shielding and avoidance behaviors” – parents may go out of their way to ensure their child isn’t encountering any difficulties. An example may be if a child had a negative experience on a sports team, the parent may immediately pull them from the team.
- “You may engage in anxious talk” – parents may share their ongoing concerns and worries with their partner or friend, while their child listens in the background, absorbing every word.
- “You may quickly move unlikely situations from a possibility to a probability.” According to the article, “When you start thinking of tragic events — school shootings and pool drownings and the like — as probabilities, you may have parental anxiety.”
- “You may not have your own life outside your kids’ problems.” Not having a healthy separation from your child’s life and getting caught up in “kid drama” may be a symptom of parental anxiety.
- “You may spend an excessive amount of time researching parenting questions.” It’s likely that a lot of parents may spend time researching issues or medical conditions affecting their child. But, if a parent is spending hours a day researching everything that they think could impact their child’s life, it may point to parental anxiety.
Parental anxiety: Causes and Effects
Causes and triggers of anxiety can be very situational.
“Researchers are finding that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the risk of developing an anxiety disorder,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)’s website.
According to the NIMH, risk factors could include things like “exposure to stressful and negative life or environmental events”, “a history of anxiety or other mental health disorders in biological relatives,” and even “shyness or feeling distressed or nervous in new situations as a child.”
“The true cause of anxiety is being a human being, gifted with the capacity to imagine a future,” according to an article in Psychology Today. “As a mental state of apprehension about what might, or might not, lie ahead, anxiety reflects uncertainty about future circumstances, whether regarding one’s own health, job, or love life, or climate change or a downturn in the economy. It can be triggered by events in the real world—an upcoming doctor’s visit, relationship conflict, a rent increase—or generated wholly internally, through thoughts of real or imagined threats (not knowing what to say when the boss calls on you in a meeting).”
For parents, the causes for worry may seem to be infinite. You may be worrying if your child will develop normally, make friends, avoid teenage temptations, or become a successful, functional, and happy adult.
When a situational worry becomes a persistent state of anxiety – having racing thoughts, feeling like you “can’t turn your mind off,” or worrying incessantly to the point where it is affecting your ability to parent – then you might have parental anxiety.
“Are we really more anxious as parents than other generations? Or has the internet just given a voice to the fears parents have already had for centuries?,” an article in Healthline poses these questions.
According to the article, parental anxiety may have a variety of causes beyond a family or personal history, shyness as a child, or experiencing stressful life events. It also mentions that “over-comparing with other children to see if your child is ‘normal’ or is meeting milestones” could be a trigger for parental anxiety among other factors.
However, it’s important to note that just because you may have risk factors for anxiety, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will suffer from it.
“Some risk factors for anxiety, like having a family history or certain environmental exposures, are not things that you have control over, but there are other factors that you might be able to change,” according to an article in verywell health. “For example, you can focus on making lifestyle changes like eating a nutritious diet, getting regular physical activity, quitting smoking or using substances, and seeking support from friends, family, and mental health professionals when you need it.”
When left untreated, physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety can develop into larger health issues. Not only can anxiety wreak havoc on the body, but research shows that parental anxiety can significantly affect children as well.
According to one study, excessive parental anxiety may raise the likelihood of anxiety and depression symptoms in children.
“One of the most difficult effects for anxious parents to consider is whether their own anxiety is rubbing off on their children. Scientists are torn in this regard, as anxious parents do tend to provide very safe and loving homes to children,” according to an article in Healthline.
Another study found that maternal overcontrolling behaviors are not only associated with a child’s anxiety symptoms, but also with a child’s self-perception. The study suggests that “strategies aimed at reducing parental overcontrol and increasing children’s sense of mastery and competence may be important in the prevention and treatment of child anxiety.”
Six Tips for Easing Parental Anxiety
1. Remind yourself everything is a phase
“Nothing lasts forever” can be both a blessing and a curse. Enjoying the infant stage and bonding with your baby can be wonderful. But, as parents transition to the toddler stage and “terrible twos,” they can feel sad that time has ended. At the same time, if the sleepless nights, crying and constant cleaning/laundry/dishes of caring for a helpless infant is stressful, it may help remind parents that this is just one phase of life.
There are several ways to manage transition stress according to an article in Psychology Times. Some of these include:
- “Admit that you feel vulnerable which may include fear, anxiety, or sadness along with excited anticipation.”
- “Know that feelings are not set and you are never stuck with just one feeling. In the same day we may feel afraid and optimistic and excited about the same circumstances. Focus on the positive emotions.”
- “Take positive action to get back on track. Stopping certain thoughts isn’t easy without a few tools. Doing something totally different like putting on music and dancing in your kitchen, going for a walk in nature, drinking a big glass of water, opening up your posture (stand and stretch your arms stretched out to each side) and breathing. You can also read something short and inspirational that will steer you in a better direction.”
Many phases in both your life and your child’s life may last a few months or years. Try to enjoy the time that you are in as much as you can. Maybe one day, you will look back and find yourself reminiscing, or maybe even missing the days when your newborn was wrecking your sleep schedule, or your toddler was running around and getting into everything.
2. Seek new perspectives
There are plenty of milestones that, as a parent, you’ll want to make sure your kids are hitting. You might have had a picture-perfect image of what your kid’s behavior would be, only to realize it’s better to reset your expectations.
It’s not unusual to want to compare your child’s timeline with someone else’s. But, from the time your little one is born to the time they leave the nest, their life will unfold according to their unique and individual timeline.
According to an article from Kids Health, when it comes to your children and their behavior, finding the good in each day is one tactic that can help reframe your perspective.
“Make a point of finding something to praise every day. Be generous with rewards — your love, hugs, and compliments can work wonders and are often reward enough,” according to the article. “Soon you will find you are ‘growing’ more of the behavior you would like to see.”
3. Seek social support
Though it can be tempting to try and do everything yourself, the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child” may be true. Seeking community and support in parenthood is crucial.
“You have to rely on lots of people to do the mothering,” actor Busy Phillips tells Yahoo Life. “The term ‘it takes a village’ rings true, but we don’t live in villages anymore. You build your village with other ‘moms,’ and not necessarily actual mothers.”
“My best friend since childhood, Emily, has been in my kids’ lives since birth,” Philipps continued. “My sister was an aunt before she was a mother herself, and she was so dedicated to showing up for my kids. My friend Jen has taken on a really sweet maternal-type role with Birdie. I think that’s important: As kids become teenagers, they need other safe adults to rely on.”
Writer Christina Crawford writes in the blog, Scary Mommy, about the importance of having mom friends of all ages:
“Life is truly sweeter when shared with friends, be they young or young at heart. My world and perception of parenting are far richer and more robust for having these unique multi-generational friendships. I couldn’t be more grateful for them. At the end of the day — despite our vast age differences and phases of life — we’re really just moms, laughing and lamenting at the overlapping pain and splendor of raising kids, and bonding over the multitude of other facets that inextricably bind us together in our motherhood journeys.”
4. Trust yourself and your instincts
Parents are faced with making numerous decisions daily, and it’s not uncommon to second guess some of those decisions. There are so many unknowns to navigating life, and no matter how much you’ve prepared, there will be times you’ll have to rely on your trusting your intuition and instinct to make certain decisions.
“As a mother, you are the emotional thermostat of your home,” writes Amity Hook Soho in Green Child Magazine. “When you are content, a peaceful energy flows out to your family and wraps them up in your nurturing, encouraging, unconditional love. That energy is contagious throughout the home, and it affects each member of your family. And having a peaceful mind as a new mom starts with self-care and learning to trust your instincts.”
Soho continues: “Don’t laugh, but I’m analytical (and was pretty high strung back then), so I was looking for data… proof… enough evidence to definitively show that there was a right way to give birth to and raise a child. Did I find it? Well, while I certainly found inspiration from each author, mostly I was left feeling that the current book’s advice contradicted the book before. I also realized some of them made me feel like I was doing it wrong.”
Most new parents can probably relate to the feeling of wanting evidence or proof that what you’re doing is the right thing. But with the amount of conflicting parenting advice that exists out there today, there’s bound to be someone out there who disagrees. To cut through the noise of parenting advice, listen to and trust your own decisions and instincts.
“It took a little while to be able to trust the hints and nudges I was getting in those quiet moments,” Soho writes, “But, like meditation, the more you do it, the clearer the messages get.”
5. Let go of the perfectionist mindset
Have a picture-perfect image of the joys of being a parent? In the words of Elsa: “let it go.” Picture-perfect parenting doesn’t exist – and it rarely includes the challenging times that parents face when raising kids.
So, what happens when somewhere down the road we deviate from that ideal-parent image we’ve created in our heads? For some, it can lead to negative self-talk, like calling yourself a bad parent or a failure.
“Make a new rule: If what you would suggest or tell a friend is good enough for them, it is good enough for you,” according to an article about the perfectionist mindset for new parents in Psychology Today. “Model flexibility for your fellow mother. Take your foot off the gas, don’t be sanctimonious, be a regular flawed human like the rest of us who are unsure and not always doing everything exactly right all the time.”
Given this, the secret to less-stressful parenting may lie in reducing your negative self-talk and being compassionate with yourself when your parenting isn’t perfect. Give yourself grace during this journey you are embarking on.
6. Get professional help when needed
At the end of the day, if you can’t take the best care of your child if your anxiety symptoms become all-consuming and overwhelming. If you find yourself unable to sleep or eat, think rationally, stop yourself from thinking worrying thoughts, or stop feeling a sense of impending doom, you may need to see a clinician.
“Taking care of yourself is the foundation of taking care of your baby and your family,” according to Mental Health America’s website. “Work with your loved ones, doctors, and community supports to determine which treatment path is best for you and how to make it a reality.”
Overall, parental anxiety is an experience that can have a significant impact on both the parent and child. It is important for parents to recognize the signs, symptoms, causes and effects of parental anxiety and seek appropriate support to manage their anxiety and promote a healthy parent-child relationship.
If you’d like to learn more about anxiety and depression post-partum and other parental mental health struggles read these GeneSight blog posts:
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