Is Anxiety Driving Your Parenting?

Dr. Delaney Ruston – Parenting is inherently anxiety-provoking. But feeling anxious at times is different than letting anxiety control the way we parent. 

Having the insight and capacity not to be led by anxiety can be difficult. After all, some anxiety helps us make good parenting decisions — such as concern about a teen’s safety when going out at night and the rule that there needs to be clear communication about the nights’ plans. 

On the other hand, anxiety can drive parenting in unhealthy ways. 

Today I share some true stories that demonstrate this and offer ideas on how we can prevent anxiety from taking hold of our own wheels. 

This first example is pretty extreme but let me share it. This is about an 8th grader girl, Maya (name has been changed), and what happened when she wanted her friend Sara (name has been changed) to spend the night. Maya had spent the night a couple of times at Sara’s house, so she was surprised when Sara said she couldn’t stay at Maya’s, explaining that her mom would not let her. Sara went on to say that her mom didn’t trust families she didn’t know very well.

Maya later explained this to her mom, who was taken aback to hear this and even a little offended. Their family life was very stable, and she could not see why Sara’s mom was so concerned.  Eventually, she called Sara’s mom and gingerly asked why she had this rule. The mom stated that she had dealt with some abuse as a child, and for that reason, she only allowed her daughter to spend the night with one family they knew for many years.

Maya’s mom said how she was sorry to hear about the abuse. She also asked if she was worried if this rule stemming from her experiences affected Sara since she could assure the mom that everything would be perfectly fine if she spent the night at their home. The mom became defensive and said that she was not concerned and would not budge on her decision. Maya’s mom was further shocked when the mom said that she had told Sara that it was because of her abuse that she had these rules. 

Maya’s mom felt so sad thinking about Sara living in a home where fear-based parenting was so dominant.

Another example has to do with something that happened at my daughter’s high school. A motivational speaker gave a talk at a school assembly, and at the end, he invited the students to come down and give a hug or “high five” to their teachers to show their appreciation. 

A week or two later, I was in the principals’ office discussing the filming of Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, and the principal was just finishing a call. When she got off the phone, she said, “That was a parent who was upset about the speaker we had and how students hugged teachers at the end as part of a moment of appreciation.” I asked, “Was that the only parent who called about this?” She responded, “Actually, we have had one or two others.”  

Later that day, a teacher mentioned the assembly and that so many teachers loved the end when all the students rushed down for this moment of appreciation. He was saddened when he learned that a few parents had called complaining about this. I felt the same way. Fear, which is what anxiety is, was clearly overly present in the homes where the phone calls stemmed from. 

Finally, I must add that Covid has brought on a slew of anxious feelings, and knowing what rules to have can be quite puzzling. I am sure we have all heard stories of parents’ responding in ways that make our “anxiety-is-driving” radar go up — such as a healthy teen who is barred from seeing friends outside with masks and distance. 

So what can we do to not let unhealthy anxiety steer our ships? I know this is something I have grappled with since I contend with a fair bit of anxiety, particularly as a parent, and this anxiety would love to drive at full speed if I didn’t work to put the brakes on it. 

Here are some strategies that can be helpful: 

  1. Ask yourself do your “feelings fit the facts?” This is a question from DBT Therapy (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), which I find very useful. 

An example of anxiety that informs a decision that “fits the facts” is telling a teen not to drive when they are really tired, and instead, you will pick them up. This parental anxiety about their driving under the influence of fatigue is appropriate anxiety. 

Now let’s take an example of a feeling that does not “fit the fact.” I know a wonderful girl just starting her senior year in high school and is extremely savvy and capable. She lives in a suburb outside a big city, and recently we were talking, and when I asked how often she and her friends go into the city, she said that her mom does not allow her to go to the city with friends yet. I held back from saying anything, but my heart dropped a bit because I knew unhealthy parental fear was driving this.

  1. If you are unsure if anxiety is driving your parenting or whether your anxiety fits the facts, I highly recommend reaching out to one or two friends, describing what you are feeling and doing, and asking for honest feedback. True friends will tell us like it is, particularly when we do not get defensive but instead thank them for speaking honestly. And by all means, if you are struggling with persistent anxious feelings, professional support is key. 
  2. Ask your kids how they experience your anxiety and what examples make sense to them, and when does it seem extreme? The magic happens when we don’t get defensive or explain ourselves or contradict them but when we say the simple phrase “Tell me more.”  And then, when they have said all they want to say, the next magic words are, “I am so glad you are telling me all this, let me digest it, and can we talk further about this tomorrow?” 

Ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. What does everyone think of the stories shared in the blog?
  2. What aspects of our parenting seem to be particularly anxiety-laden?
  3. Can we think of examples of families where anxiety seems to be at the wheel a lot?