Last week I wrote about how anxiety is affecting parenting by sharing the shift that I have seen in my 30 years of working with families. This week I want to outline what I think are some key buffers against parental and (by extension) kid anxiety. In light of the shootings this past week, it feels like I should be addressing the topic of how do you reassure children they are safe, but I still go back to my observation that the younger the child, the more the fears are the old ones that have always been there—being separated from one’s parent, fear of the dark and later fear of being made fun of. Addressing children’s fears is an important topic, but today I am going to stay focused on keeping your own parental anxieties at bay.
Seeing Your Kids as Being in Progress
One great source of stress for parents is that they see every data point as a harbinger of their child’s future. Rather than looking at where a child is over time, they make decisions from a single data point. Anxiety about a child’s performance starts early with benchmarks like turning over, crawling and walking. Parents lose track of the idea that children all learn in their own ways in their own time. They look at developmental guidelines and feel inadequate if their child is not at the front of the curve despite professional assurance, for example, that “Babies start talking… anywhere between 9 and 14 months [, while s]ome perfectly normal babies don't say a recognizable word until their 18 month.” Somehow parents cannot absorb the words “some perfectly normal babies” as pertaining to them and their baby. It serves parents better when they take the big picture into account. By looking at where else baby has made progress, it makes it easier to trust that some other area of development is progressing nicely.
Children All Learn in Their Own Ways in Their Own Time
My daughter was both a later talker and a later reader. Note that I said later, not late, because even though it felt late compared to her peers, she was actually in the “some perfectly normal” children range. When it came to speaking, she made use of syllables of meaning. For a long, long time “Ba!” was bottle, baby, ball, book or banana and most often our dog Shumba. Her one, real sentence for almost a whole year was “I do,” as in No, Mommy, don’t you tie my shoes, zip me up, lift me to my chair, etc. because I can do that on my own, though she wasn’t using a variety of phrases typical of a two year old like “more juice” or “mommy go.”
On the other hand, my daughter was an excellent climber. She could climb out of her crib before she was 18 months. One day I looked around and found her on the top of the washing machine. (Yikes. How had she managed that?)
Early Mastery Does Not Correlate to Superior Performance
You might wonder if my daughter turned into a great athlete. She did not. Or not really talking until 28 months has she struggled verbally or been a reluctant talker? Quite the contrary, ever since she made the leap from syllables to sentences, she has been known as a great talker (read sometimes hard-to-get-a-word-in-edgewise talker). While parents should certainly be aware of their child’s progress and check in with a doctor if they have concerns, even a very young child will absorb a parent’s anxiety about his performance. When children feel anxiety about something, they most often avoid it, which just makes things worse.
Teaching Your Children to Have a Growth Mindset Will Support Your Confidence in Their Progress
Parents can help their children continue to try and put effort towards something by helping their child develop a growth mindset. That means reminding their child that even though something is hard—and they cannot do it yet—they will be able to do it someday. We are great at praising babies for every little effort they make towards mastery, but as our children get older, our own fear that they are not performing compared to their peers leads to our being critical and anxious rather than strong in our belief that our children will get there eventually with steady feedback and practice.
When a baby has put in enough effort to a skill, she begins to fuss and cry. The parent naturally changes the situation and picks up the baby who has had too much tummy time or takes over the spoon and finishes feeding the beginner utensil user. The parent does not treat this fussiness as a discipline problem but rather accepts that the child is at her limit.
When the school-aged child begins to whine and fidget, however, parents often do treat the situation as a reason for punishment. A child is reprimanded for being rude or not being able to sit still. If a child takes being at the end of his rope out on his sibling, he might be sent to his room. It would be far better for a parent to say, “I can see you have had it. No more homework for you right now,” but most parents don’t. They are so worried that if a child does not keep up academically, he will never make his life goals. They push the child when the child actually needs to rest. This causes resentment on the one hand and anxiety on the other hand. The parent feels frustrated that the kid “doesn’t get with the program.” At the same time, the parent feels anxious that his child might have an attention deficit or some other learning challenge, when probably, his child just needs more rest and playtime.
For more on how developing a growth mindset supports kids’ motivation and follow through, reread my blog on Grit and How We Foster That in Our Children.
Take the Long View
Over my years as an educator, I have collected stories of people who at 30 are firmly in the “successful job” category. If you were to look at a single data point of their development at any given time, however, you might despair that they were never going to amount to anything. (These stories could make a whole other blog some day!)
Seeing your kids as being in progress and trusting the long view are two key attitudes to adopt for keeping your own parental anxiety at bay. There are two more practical steps you can take to keep family members calm. One is preserving family time and unsupervised kid time by Saying No to Too Much of a Good Thing. The other is Using Family Rituals to Ground Family Members. I’ll say more about that next week.