Fear vs. Reality: How to Cope with Parental Anxiety
I have a confession: I don't watch the news very often. I scan the headlines on my CNN app and read a few stories here and there, but I avoid a lot of it. I read everything I can about education. I read endless studies about child development, mental health, and parenting. I try to stay informed about political happenings and issues that affect our country. But I don't watch my local news very often.
I feel slightly anxious when I do tune in. I feel sad about the terrible stories that make the news and then I worry about the people I love. Watching the news always leaves me feeling slightly overwhelmed, so I minimize my exposure to it.
I often caution parents to avoid overwhelming their kids with big news stories. Real world fears can cause significant worries for little kids. Those big real world fears can have an impact on parents, as well.
If parents live in a perpetual state of fear about the what-ifs of parenting, kids will, too.
Every story about abduction raises concerns about the safety of children. And it doesn't stop there. Car accidents, pervasive bullying, childhood cancer, drowning, children, and guns … all of these things make the news and saturate social media feeds, increasing parental anxiety as a result.
The truth is that we can't control every little thing that happens. The other truth is that while you might see some scary stuff in the news or in the headlines, that doesn't mean that those scary things will happen to you.
Anxiety trickles down from parent to child. If parents live in a perpetual state of fear about the what-ifs of parenting, kids will, too. Parents are supposed to be the rocks – the ones kids look to in an effort to make sure that everything will work out in the end. If every little shake conjures a tsunami in your mind, your child is also likely to have big reactions to small triggers.
How do you stop the fears from spinning out of control? Practice these steps:
Talk back to the fears:
By practicing self-talk, you can learn to take control over intrusive thoughts and remain calm when under stress.
When you're calm, make a list of the thoughts that seem to play on repeat when you're under stress (example: “I can't let my kids play outside because they might be kidnapped.”) Next to each intrusive thought, write down a positive replacement thought (example: “My neighbors are nearby and I can see them out the window.”) Practice using replacement thoughts when you're calm so that you can use them to squash intrusive thoughts when you're under stress.
Keep a worry journal:
I often counsel kids to keep a worry journal at night. When our brains become less active (as we prepare for sleep), worries can kick in. By slowing down, we make space for the worries we stuffed down throughout the day. A journal is a great way to release those worries before bed.
You don't have to fill the pages with details – a short list of your worries followed by three good things that happened during the day can help release pent up emotion and calm you before you sleep.
Phone a friend:
Friends are great for providing support when we're down and they can also keep us in check when our irrational fears become too much to manage. Venting emotion (even the irrational fear kind) can help you restore a feeling of calm. Sometimes you just have to get things out. Call in support to help you talk through your feelings and ground your fears in reality.
Parenting is anything but easy, and there will always be things that can lead to worry, but taking control of those worries is good for the whole family.