So what are anxious parents supposed to do?
The basic tenets of good parenting are to trust your instincts, be consistent with your children, take care of yourself, make some changes in the structure of your life to gain time with your kids, and seek support, according to parenting experts from a range of perspectives. Here are some reassuring and simple principles they have to offer:
“You can’t do it all and try to be A-plus at everything,” says Stanley Greenspan, M.D. “You have to recognize that or you’ll keep shortchanging the kids and family life.” Greenspan, whose most recent book is The Secure Child: Helping Our Children Feel Safe and Confident in an Insecure World, says that “the first principle is to relax and offer a nurturing relationship, which is more important than the perfect preschool, weekend trips or special vacations or new computer games. It all starts with nurturing care and floor time.”
Involve your kids in your life, Greenspan encourages. Do errands together. Cook together. Turn off the TV. “Cherish the time you have available and you – and your kids – will know that you’re doing the best you can,” he says.
Nurturing your child is one of the most important elements of parenting. But too much of a different kind of attention – fueled by our anxiety to be a good parent or because of menacing headlines about child abductions – can backfire.
“We’re hovering over our kids and making sure they’re safe every minute of the day,” says veteran parent educator Linda Braun. “There’s less independence, less of a sense for kids that they can do things without an adult. I’m sure this will have long-term developmental consequences.”
Children need a few key things from their parents, according to Braun: the basics of food, clothing and shelter; acceptance of who they are; and, she emphasizes, boundaries for behavior. “I know parents who give their kids music lessons, and swimming lessons, and buy them all the clothes they want,” she says. “But they won’t set a boundary around sleep or bedtime.”
Parents also have basic needs, adds parent educator and researcher Rae Simpson, Ph.D. Parents must have financial stability and the support of employers, schools, the medical community and social service agencies.
“You can’t expect parents to be thinking about all of the contradictions about spanking if they don’t know if they can provide food for their child’s supper,” Simpson says. Parents must have access to people who can help them figure out if a teen is depressed or if a toddler is not meeting key milestones, but we must expect parents to take responsibility and seek out those resources when they need help, she says.
Decide what’s important enough for you to worry about. If you expect your child to perform two solid hours of chores each week, then live with it and don’t fret about it, advises Peter Stearns, author of Anxious Parents. If you decide that chores aren’t necessary right now, promise yourself that you won’t get upset every time you step over a dirty sweatshirt on the way into your son’s room.
“We teach children by modeling,” says personal coach Kate Duffy, who works with clients on their parenting skills among other things. “But if you goof up, don’t beat yourself up,” she says. “Make every mistake an opportunity for growth for you and your family. Then the stress is drastically reduced.”
“We turn children into a bunch of chores,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, mother of four and co-founder of the National Parenting Association. “Many of those books you stare at in the bookstore are all about responsibilities, chores, the developmental agenda we have to help our children to achieve. We’ve forgotten to just enjoy the extraordinary outpouring of this very primitive love we have for these young things.”
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