by Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D
Because parenting is such a serious responsibility, worry just comes with the territory of raising a child. "What if I make a wrong decision?" wonders the new parent? The answer is: parents make a lot of "wrong" decisions, but most children still come out mostly okay.
The challenge of parenting is to make a full faith effort, making some mistakes in the process, recovering as best one can, learning as you grow, and not striving to achieve perfection -- which does more harm than good. Think about it. The only way to be perfect parent is to have a perfect child, and who wants to subject a child to the pressures of living up to that inhuman standard?
WHAT IS WORRY?
Worry is ignorance plus anxious questions plus fearful answers. Worry begins with ignorance: “I don’t know why my child isn’t home by the time agreed upon.” Ignorance is made threatening by asking an anxious question: “What if my child has gotten into trouble?”
Jumping to a fearful answer or conclusion completes the worry: “My child has probably been in a terrible accident!”
One formula for worry = "I don't know" + "What if?" + "Just suppose the worst?"
To keep worry down, it helps to accept ignorance or to take action to reduce it. "As a parent, there will always be infinitely more I don't know (or control) about my child and my child's life than I can ever know; but when I have a need to know that can be satisfied, I will check it out."
To keep worry down, it helps to refrain from asking anxious questions. "As a parent, it is easy to wonder the worst when I don't know; but I can refuse to scare myself on behalf of my child by electing not to create fearful possibilities to consider."
To keep worry down, it helps to avoid giving fearful answers to anxious questions. "As a parent, believing I should know enough to protect my child, it is easy to rely on my imagination to reply to questions when there is no factual data on which to rely; but I can choose to let those questions go unanswered."
WHAT NOT TO WORRY ABOUT.
Don’t worry about what you can’t control: “What if my child should contract a fatal disease?”
Let go what you can’t control and save your energy to invest in doing what you can. Don’t equate worry with caring: “Well, if I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t worry about you so!” Driving yourself crazy with worry on behalf of your child is not an act of love; it is an act of fear.
Don’t invest worry with magical powers: “If I just worry hard enough about you, you’ll be safe.” Worry for superstition’s sake provides no real protection.
HOW NOT TO WORRY.
To make worry worst of all, a parent can CHAIN WORRY by adding one “What if?” question to another until a mild setback now is used to predict dire consequences that doom the child’s life later on. For example, a child’s failure on a single test leads to parental worry about failing other tests in the class, leads to parental worry about a failed course, leads to parental worry about failing other courses, leads to parental worry about failing to graduate high school, leads to parental worry about being employable, leads to parental worry about an incapacity for self-support, leads to a vision of the future with their child reduced to living off handouts on the street. The lesson here is: keep your worries as close to the present as possible, and no further than the near future.
A PRODUCTIVE USE FOR WORRY.
Where parental worry comes in handy is in helping children learn to think ahead, anticipate possible problems, and prepare contingency plans should those problems arise. Young and adolescent children are often focused on getting what is wanted NOW: “I just want to be allowed to go to the mall and hang out with my friends!”
It is at this point that the conscientious parent begins to ask productive worry questions. "What if you get separated from your friends, what do you plan to do?" To to the impatient child, who wants to anticipate only pleasure, this introduction of possible problems just gets in the way of immediate gratification. "Oh stop worrying! Nothing bad is going to happen to me!
Just let me go!'' But the responsible parent is steadfast: "If you want me to consider giving you new freedoms, then you have to be willing to take the time to think through with me what risks you will be taking, and how you plan to cope if any of these complications actually arise."
Even though worry can feel bad, it isn't all bad. Even though it can be unrealistic, it can also be realistic. In fact, constructively used, parental worry can help train a child to think ahead, so in that sense worry can do a lot of good.
© Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D. 2002. All Rights Reserved.