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To the anxious parent in each of us

To the anxious parent in each of us | Texas Children's Hospital
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I’m sitting at my desk, and I can feel my blood pressure start to rise as my legs begin shaking. I swipe back and forth vigorously on my phone, hoping a text message will appear with every stroke of my finger.

It’s 9:03 p.m. “He was supposed to call me three minutes ago,” I think to myself. The rational side of me tries to become the voice of reason. “It’s fine – he probably stopped to take a break because it’s so hot outside, or maybe he just forgot to text me when he got home.”

On the other hand, my irrational side begins to stir panic. I start recalling every horrific story I’ve seen in the news recently, alongside details of traumatic incidents I’ve heard from different families throughout my career. The “what if?” scenarios take over my brain.

Nine. That’s how many times my 13-year-old son has checked in with me today.

We can’t help taking advantage of 24-hour access to our children, which is the reality of present-day parenthood. We can contact them through smart phones and social media accounts. We can watch them around the clock with home security systems, even from across the world. We schedule play dates instead of allowing spontaneous free play. We can track their location to make sure they’re in the right place, at the right time.

Do we rely on these strategies to promote safety, or are we really using them to manage parental anxiety and stress? By doing so, we might be giving our children a false sense of security and inadvertently encouraging increased dependence on us. Could our parental anxiety, alongside these advances in technology, actually be making our children less resilient? This is definitely a dilemma to consider and take seriously.

It almost initially seems counterintuitive for all of this connectedness and security to negatively impact our children, but child development experts are raising alarms. We may not be giving our children the skills they need for adulthood.

In a recent NPR article, entitled “Empowering Kids in an Anxious World,” contributor Katherine Reynolds Lewis discusses how “parent-free play” can help children develop skills such as conflict resolution and time management, as well as a sense of autonomy that positively affects self-esteem and mental health. With climbing rates of depression and anxiety in adolescents and challenges that come with “adulting,” maybe it’s time we step back to look at the messages our parenting styles are sending our children.

But it’s a dangerous world – right? Bad things can happen anywhere, and the awful stories we see in the news are a constant presence. They will always remind of us what could go wrong, but it’s important to remember media outlets only broadcast and publish the rare, “news-worthy” stories. They don’t report on the common stories of children who play outside or walk home from school without incident.

We’re not trying to urge parents to stop taking normal precautions. It’s always important to know where your children are and who they’re hanging out with, and it’s critical to educate your children on what to do in dangerous situations. But also consider the other things you want to teach your children, including the skills that will help them become independent, resilient adults. 

This resiliency can help both children and adults overcome obstacles, manage stress and bounce back quickly from adversity. Kenneth Ginsburg, a well-known pediatrician and the author of “Building Resilience in Children and Teens,” developed “The 7 C’s Model of Resilience” to give parents a plan for helping children develop the skills needed to make them happier and more resilient. This model includes: Competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control.

To put it simply – children who possess control over their daily activities are more likely to develop a sense of confidence and competence, which will help them navigate the adult world. Even though the world seems like a scary place, try to take deep breaths and think of the big picture instead of the “what if?” scenarios when your child doesn’t check in with you at the designated moment. It’s important to remember the ultimate goal of parenting is to raise children who are able to survive and thrive without your constant presence.

Take some time for yourself to practice mindfulness, and reflect on the great skills you’re teaching your children. You can have confidence in both yourself and your children. Take a step back and offer them the opportunity to succeed – and fail – independently.