How Parental Worry Affects Our Kids

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An interview with Dr. Beth Onufrak, Ph.D, by Christina Montoya Fiedler, Contributing Writer, TMC

My doctor told me once I became a mother my worry would increase exponentially. I agree. We moms worry about the little stuff, the big stuff, and all the alarm bells in between. If a furrowed brow is part of our reality, how does that emotional state affect our children? Dr. Beth Onufrak says it’s all about how you cope with the concerns of life that will help or hurt our kids. — Sam Kurtzman-Counter, President, TMC

What level of parental worry isn’t appropriate for children to experience?

Worry is a fact of everyday life for every parent, especially the parent of a young child. Some worry is good, like “Is the pool gate is locked?” or “It’s been quiet too long… what’s going on?”  But other grown up worries can haunt our minds and strain the basic day – the next paycheck, the boss, a relative’s illness.

The bottom line is that children are watching us every second. We are their models for coping with emotion of every kind. So if we worry without displaying some healthy coping response, our children may “catch” our worry, just like the sniffles.  What’s an appropriate level of worry for our kids to see?  The better question is, “Do my emotional reactions show healthy emotion management?”  Or, “Do my emotional reactions show my child an out-of-control parent?”

Frequent high levels of parental worry and distress without visible coping efforts is unhelpful and scary for young children to witness. It conveys the frightening message, “Something is SO BAD my parent cannot manage it, so this is a dangerous moment.”  And how do young children express unmanageable anxious feelings? You got it … tantrums, irritability, acting out “for no reason.” No reason, that is, that they can explain.

Is there a level of parental worry that’s okay for children to experience?  

Yes, of course.  Some level of worry is an everyday experience. It can be educational for young children to see their parent as a “coping model.”  That means, a parent who experiences an uncomfortable feeling but displays healthy management of that feeling. Breathing and problem-solving talk is great teaching!

For example, a parent’s face may reveal worry. A 4-year-old may ask, “Mommy, what’s wrong?”  A helpful reply could be something like this: “I’m thinking about a grown-up problem and some ways to fix it. I will figure it out and it will be okay. I’m gonna take a deep breath right now to help my body feel calmer and help me think.”

Is it a good idea for parents to make every effort to push their worry aside (to come back to later) when around their kids so to protect them from it? 

Yes, in general, it’s good to reserve large worries for later if you can. But if your feelings are going to show, better to acknowledge them with your child in a healthy way. Faking rarely works.  Children are masters at noting discrepancies between our words, bodies and faces.

A good rule of thumb is: Conceal the Content, Show the Coping.  For instance, it’s not helpful to tell your young child that you only have $23.50 in our checking account. Better to say something like, “I have a grown-up problem, and I’m thinking of ways to make it better. I’m going to take a deep breath and shake out my hands to help me relax.”   You might say, “Mommy is going to take a few quiet minutes so my brain can think better.”  The best words are the ones that feel natural to you. The heart of the healthy message is:  “This grown up is looking for a way to handle this grown-up problem.”

As hard as it is to manage our strong feelings, especially anxiety, the payoff for that effort extends far beyond the present moment. The payoff is in literally building coping skills into the young child brain.  In these early years, more brain cells are forming and connecting than in any other period of life!  Calm parental coping builds stress-management pathways in a young child’s brain.

What signs might children exhibit if being affected by parental worry?

If children “catch” contagious worries from adults, they may express that emotional discomfort in increased irritability, more tantrums, big upsets over minor things, lowered ability to tolerate disappointment, more bad dreams, and increased clinginess. To you, the child may just seem to be acting up at the most inconvenient moment.  But after a moment of reflection, perhaps after they’ve gone to bed, a parent may consider, “Maybe he’s been seeing my worry and reacting to it….”

If our kids have been negatively impacted by our worry, what can we do to help support them?

Because children are truth-meters, genuineness in our interactions (without overloading them) is best. A parent who thinks she’s over-worried her child can always “repair,” as in the following scenario: “I know you’ve heard me upset on the phone with grandma. We’re talking about a grown-up problem and thinking of a way to make it better. We’re taking care of it and it’s going to be okay.”

We can reassure children by affirming a healthy boundary between child and adult matters.  “Buddy, this problem is for me to figure out. Your job is to play and have fun, listen to me and your teachers, go to school, and pick up your stuff. My job is to figure out grown up things and to love and take care of YOU! So let me give you a super hug.”

Worry happens. Young children don’t need to be burdened with adult concerns. But they can grow in emotional strength by watching parents experience discomfort, display calm coping, and express confidence in their problem solving (even if a problem doesn’t feel immediately solvable).  Anxiety frays our patience. But digging deep for a bit of calm can teach your observing young child priceless lessons.  Adult coping builds children’s coping.

Beth Onufrak, Ph.D., is a clinical child psychologist specializing in preschool and primary age kids exclusively. She’s based in Phoenix, Arizona.

Please share any thoughts or questions you might have below in the comments section.  We love hearing from you!

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Posted in: Communication, Expert Advice, Emotions, Health & Wellness, Modern Parenting