Worry, Worry, Worry: Parenting Anxiety
Parenting makes moms and dads anxious � some say as never before. Here's why and how we can break the cycle of stress.
My 4-1/2-year-old says good parents should give their kids snacks every day and "lots and lots of kisses and hugs." Two of his friends add that mommies and daddies should be kind and play games.
That's pretty good advice coming from the under-5 crowd. It's also the kind of simple guidance that today's stressed-out parents should heed, the experts say.
The complicated reality is that the job of parenting makes us anxious and unsure of ourselves even on the best of days. The job's responsibilities can seem unbearable when you heap on 50-hour workweeks, economic strain and global unrest.
Whether we're actually experiencing a trend of increasing anxiety about parenting is hard to say. Some experts offer an unqualified "yes." Others say our parents worried about the same basic things we do: Are the children healthy? Are they getting a good education? Will they turn out to be kind people?
Yet, there's no question that today we're faced with more information about how to raise healthy kids, how their brains work, what activities they need to succeed in life, and how much "quality time" we have to log with the little ones - or else. "Expert" advice - much of it contradictory - overflows from bookstore shelves and the Internet.
"By providing a great deal of information, we [parenting professionals] may have created an impression that there is a chronic knowledge gap between what a parent knows and what he or she ought to know," says Rae Simpson, Ph.D., program director of parenting education and research at M.I.T. and the author of a 1998 report on the media and parent support.
Much of the parenting information out there is vital because it can address legitimate concerns and reduce anxiety, Simpson says. But the flood of do's and don'ts also confuses even the most well-grounded parents.
We worry so much about parenting because of what's at stake, experts say, both for ourselves and for society. Kate Duffy, a personal and executive coach, says she and her colleagues have seen an increased demand for their services from parents who want help doing a good job - as parents. Most of Duffy's coaching sessions, upwards of 80 percent, start out about a particular business need and wind up being a discussion about family or personal issues.
Our purpose as parents is to help our children become confident, independent happy people, she says. "Parents just want to get it right."
Why So Concerned?
Some days, there are countless items on Fred Wagner's list of worries, most of which revolve around whether the environment, as he calls it, is right for his son and daughter. There's the public school vs. private school debate, and whether the kids should also attend religious school. Wagner and his wife, Mary, wonder if they know enough about their children's friends, whether their 7-year-old son is compassionate or has tendencies toward aggressive behavior, if there's a good balance between studies and after-school activities, and if their 5-year-old daughter has a healthy perception of herself.
Wagner, an attorney, says filtering the daily onslaught of news and other media presents even weightier challenges. "There's crazy stuff happening in the world," he says. "How do you talk about these scary and immediate issues, address your kids' concerns, but not blow everything out of proportion?"
Wagner knows previous generations had significant concerns, too. But today's parents, he says, have to cope with jobs, family, economic security, "plus all the external things, the things you can't control, that are so "in your face.""
Today, that mandate to do a good job as parents - "or else!" - seems to carry higher stakes than it ever has. From incivility to school violence, many of society's ills today are blamed on bad parenting. We may even worry that the world won't get better if we produce a child who can't or won't contribute to its growth and improvement.
"We'll need better problem solvers in the future," says Stanley Greenspan, M.D., a child psychiatrist and professor at
George Washington University Medical School. "We'll need healthier individuals to run society."
That's a lot of responsibility for any parent to bear. No wonder we're anxious.
Roots of Our Anxiety
Increasing anxiety about parenting has its roots in major shifts in society, according to Greenspan.
Today, parenting roles are less well-defined than they were even a generation ago, and this generation also has less time to spend being parents, he says. Traditional parenting roles for men and women "didn't always make for good parenting," Greenspan notes, "but people at least felt they were carrying out something explicit."
The increased number of parents working long hours outside of the home creates a second stress on families, he says. Parents who know they're not spending enough time with their kids try to do a perfect job when they're home. Working moms, especially, may think that they must be ideal parents with flawless children in order to justify their decision to work.
Over the last two centuries, parents have also faced major transformations in ideas about childhood, says Peter Stearns, a professor of history at George Mason University and author of Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America. These include the importance of schooling over work for children, and the fact that families have fewer children in each family, making each child a more precious "investment," Stearns says. Since the early 20th century, we have also latched on to the idea that children are extremely vulnerable, he says. "We don't give children enough credit for their resilience and strength."
So we worry if they have too much homework and hesitate to ask them to do more chores around the house. We feel awful when they say they're bored but don't dare suggest they watch TV with its "poisonous" images.
Stearns says he doesn't see any signs that parents are getting any less anxious. In fact, some parents see worrying as an obligation - if they're not worried, they're somehow deficient as parents. But because parenting anxiety isn't a new concept, we have the opportunity to learn from the past and decide if there's any benefit to all this worrying.
Over the past 50 years, we haven't raised kids to be terribly inadequate once they've grown up, though we constantly worried about it and thought they were," Stearns observes. "On the whole, the amount of worry has not been proportional to the actual results. Kids won't collapse."
We ought to take a collective deep breath, recognize that we're over-anxious, and find a new way. The goal, Stearns says, is to eliminate "free-floating anxiety."
Focusing on What Really Matters
Parenting causes stress, but stress doesn't make for good parenting. So how can parents break this cycle and get clear about what really matters?
Before parents can vanquish their anxiety they need to understand where it comes from, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the National Parenting Association and co-author of The War Against Parents: What We Can Do For America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads. Hewlett has her own list of pressures on today's parents: demanding jobs, long commutes, societal expectations for "good" parents, competition with friends and a dizzying amount of advice. She also blames powerful internal forces, such as the drive to be Supermom, wanting our kids to like us, vowing not to repeat the mistakes our parents made and guilt over being unable to do it all and have a perfect child.
Having evaluated the pressures particular to parents, experts suggest that we try to look at the big picture.
Other than a consensus that you should never hit a child with the intention of hurting him, there are very few guideposts in American society for parents to follow, Simpson notes. "There is very little common ground that says "this is the way one raises children in my world.""
Today, parenting professionals' mission, Simpson says, is to "take the chaos and help parents find the clarity."
"It is normal to be worried as a parent about your kids," says veteran parent educator Robin Bowen. "And no matter what you do or how you do it, your kids will think you're not doing it right."
Under fire from our own children, we also receive criticism from friends and relatives, and wonder whether we just differ in parenting styles or whether we are really doing something wrong.
Erin Sweeney, a mother of two girls and a boy under the age of 7, says she's not a habitual worrier. But after a particularly bad day - filled with too much scolding or not enough time spent with one of her children - she'll lie awake at 4 a.m. wondering where she's gone wrong.
"I don't want them to have childhood memories of me yelling at them all the time, or neglecting them," she says. "Even if we've had a wonderful day together, I wonder if the bad moments will stand out."
Organizations such as Bowen's work to support parents and reassure them that they're probably doing everything just fine.
"People need to understand that most of them have within them the correct ways to raise their kids," Bowen says.
Kim Sammons, a mother of two, says she and her husband don't dwell on their parenting job performance, but they do recognize the rewards good parenting can bring. Sammons skips much of the expert advice available, but says she once asked a family friend - someone she thinks did a great job as a mom - for a parenting tutorial. What she got was a letter, now posted on her fridge as a daily reminder. "It's just full of such common sense," Sammons says. "Like listening to your children and loving them unconditionally."
Anxious Parents: A History of Childrearing in America, by Peter N. Stearns, New YorkUniversity Press, 2003. Examines the issues the 20th century brings to bear on parents, with an understanding of and reference to parenting styles and concerns in earlier times.
Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism, by Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D., Free Spirit Publishing, 2001. This guide to perfectionism in families provides specific help to change your ways.
The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn, and Flourish, by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., and T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., Perseus Books, 2009. Offers clear-cut guidelines to help parents and caregivers raise healthy, well-nurtured children.
A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear, by Janna Malamud Smith, Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Part history and part personal musings, this book examines the uses - and manipulations of - maternal anxiety.
Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, by Ann Hulbert, Knopf, 2011. A history of how children and parents have been studied and counseled in modern America.
The Secure Child: Helping Our Children Feel Safe and Confident in an Insecure World, by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., Perseus Publishing, 2003. Offers basic guidelines to help pull families together during times of stress and uncertainty. This book shows how basic parenting elements help create secure children.
The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West, Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Looks at the ways in which American society undermines parents� efforts.
Call your local school department to see if it sponsors free workshops for parents. Many districts offer programs led by a local family counselor, psychologist or school-adjustment counselor.