The Unintended Consequences When We Worry Too Much as Parents
Parenting is by its very nature an ongoing experience of worry and self-doubt. Putting aside the moments of pleasure, meaningful satisfaction and emotional closeness – hopefully in plentiful supply – being a parent means not being quite sure if we are doing the right thing, making the best choice, or helping our child as much as possible. Sometimes this uncertainty is once in awhile, sometimes it’s more ongoing. Often the answer to that question is days, weeks, months, even years in the future as we observe how various challenges unfold. When our child reaches adulthood, we may finally get a more final, ongoing sense of their having become capable, caring, good people guided by values and priorities that seem worthwhile.
Sometimes it’s clearly big issues: academic performance, college admission, getting and holding onto employment, developing friendships or long-term romantic relationships that are truly nurturing, maintaining self-control of behavior, medical treatment. Other times it’s smaller, but still important concerns: getting materials organized for daily school participation, not losing things frequently, participating with some success and pleasure in after-school activities, having friendships that are not only fun, but supportive of better life choices. Sometimes it’s just a general worry and anxiety, which can be fueled by other parents’ worries even if our own child seems to be developing well.
Adolescence with its stormy behavior is often an intense period, for the child and for the parents. Fortunately, this often “self-corrects” as the teenager matures, learns from his/her experiences, has helpful teachers and adults who hold firm with kindness, and as the teenager receives guidance from parents. For this self-correcting to unfold however, the challenge at hand must be the child’s problem, not the parent’s problem to fix.
It is precisely this anxiety for the parent of allowing the problem to be the child’s that prompts parents to intervene in ways to spare the child from the suffering and struggle inherent in learning how to address problems. Parents worry that the problem will overwhelm their child, leave him/her feeling inadequate and a failure in an ongoing, deeper, and more profound way. So, they step in to fix the problem and even prevent such problems from occurring as much as possible.
A parent might intervene with a teacher, school administrator or coach to create a specific outcome. Or, be sure to bring forgotten assignments or lunches to school – repeatedly. Or, attempt to have disciplinary actions waived for their child, even if the consequences are deserved. There are times when a child is truly in danger, physical danger, and then a parent must step in, but such times are an exception and usually rare.
An alternative parenting relationship is to provide guidance, advice, and help for a child to problem solve so that the child learns how to navigate and find resolutions to challenges. Rather than intervene on a child’s behalf, or prescribe one “right solution” (usually based on our own experiences growing up), a parent helps identify what the issues are, how a child feels and thinks about it, what some alternative strategies and solutions might be, all the while seeking clarification and understanding, and keeping the message clear: the problem is the child’s to solve, with help and guidance, yes, but it is the child’s challenge (not the parents’ responsibility to remove it from the child’s life).
Parents who struggle with more intense anxiety often resort to being: “overprotective”, or “helicopter parents”. This struggle is outlined clearly in a recent Parenting article in the Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/02/01/worried-youre-messing-up-parent-try-doing-less/noredirect=on&utm_term=.1634e556f858). In essence these parents adopt an “authoritarian” approach, in which they give orders, demand compliance, monitor very closely, and step in to intervene in many circumstances so that the child does not learn from their own choices. Instead the child learns to be compliant, dependent, and perhaps that much more rebellious in the typical adolescent period of strenuous efforts to be independent.
The often-unspoken message from these parents is actually that the child is not capable of dealing with challenges, confronting them with all the confusing and powerful emotions, sorting things out, developing a strategy and coping skills, putting that strategy into use, and then learning more from how the outcomes unfold. Thus, a less confident and capable child, adolescent and young adult is often what develops.
Rather than being laissez faire and hands off – the opposite choice from authoritarian – an “authoritative” parent engages as outlined above. As the child gets older, hopefully, less guidance is needed and more choices by the child are exercised, which reinforces the child’s sense of being able to navigate through challenges with success. The message is really: challenges and difficulties do crop up, emotions and thoughts can be confusing, some alternative solutions can be considered, tried, and then evaluated to learn more going forward. With help in parent education and counseling, parents can develop alternative parenting strategies to contain their own anxiety and parent more effectively.
A more extreme example of over-parenting recently broke out in the open: the scandal involving college admissions being arranged through costly payments by parents through college advisors. This is perhaps an ultimate example of parents guaranteeing the desired outcome for their children in ways that engage the children in fraud, dishonesty, and disregard for others who are being deprived of their rightful opportunity. Children are taught that success is bought and paid for, rather than earned through effort, growing competence, and merit. (For a summary: https://nyti.ms/2UJ3OGU )
Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Torrance, CA. A member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network, he can be reached at (310) 539-2772 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2019 by Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.