Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Finding a Place for Anxiety

Lately, I've been thinking about anxiety and its relationship to parenting. Sometimes when anxiety rears its head, it's telling you "that carrot is big enough to choke on" or "it would be easy for my child to fall into the deep end of this swimming pool." All good reminders, anxiety--thanks! But recent recalls of toys has me wondering about if all the safety information parents receive leads to a little too much interference from anxiety. Yes, you've heard about "helicopter" parents, the millenial generation being the most needy and narcissistic, the growing obesity childhood obesity problem, etc. Are these random phenomena or could they be correlated by a trend of increasing interference from anxiety on parenting? What I mean is, is anxiety goading parents to step in to "protect" kids, when what a child needs is to experiment and explore--and sometimes fall down--to learn the fullness of her abilities and limitations? This is not to say that there aren't times when parental intervention is good (and indeed, for those children who lack good safety instincts, necessary); however, could there be opportunities that are being denied by anxiety for allowing children to use their own instincts to decide on the level of challenge with which their comfortable? My hunch is that anxiety teaches parents to only allow children to take the easily-calculated risks. This message is then passed on to children who learn to be risk-averse physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

So, what's a parent to do? A lack of anxiety could lead to allowing your 2 y.o. to play with knives? Too much and the kid can't leave the house without a helmet and knee pads. What I want to offer is (the incredibly challenging, I know) proposition that we parents ask ourselves when we sense anxiety's presence, what is this anxiety asking me to do? What are the possible outcomes for acting on anxiety's direction here? What are the potential consequences for ignoring it? Is this anxiety intervening in a helpful or meddlesome way? What are my values as a parent, and is this anxiety in the service of those values? My hope is that when we can find the proper place for anxiety in parenting, children can grow up to be creative, courageous, humble--and safe!--people.

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