The Anxious Parent

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Q: But with the world more competitive, don't our kids need more attention and involvement?

A: Is the world really more competitive for kids? The chief place they may experience competition is in their families, when they vie with their siblings for their parents' attention and resources. Contemporary parents grew up in bigger families, so life felt very competitive. But kids today don't have any competitor, or perhaps just one, in their family. While homework may have gotten harder, most kids have many more resources than their parents did, precisely because they come from small families.

Q: How can parents tell if they're overthinking and overworrying?

A: If you don't have a life outside your kids or if you go into high melodrama every time your child reports a minor problem, like an argument with a classmate, you're probably overparenting. Parents need to go to the movies, have a love life, and pursue their own interests. As a 13-year-old patient of mine once said to me, "I wish my parents had some hobby other than me." Now and then, it's even good for a parent to be too busy to look over a homework assignment.

Of course, if your child is diagnosed with a learning disability or physical or mental illness, you need to be more actively involved. But many parents overestimate the degree of their children's problems. A child may be miserable at school, but often the situation will improve on its own. I see parents who get anxious and feel that they, or the school, must intervene immediately.

Still, it's hard to make the case that this overworrying is seriously damaging children. The research on only children -- who tend to be doted on -- shows that they're successful and well-adjusted. I do see effects, however. Kids become more self-conscious and ironic. They put up walls to ward off parental anxiety. They tell themselves, and me, that their parents are too worried; as a result, they may keep whole chunks of their lives from their parents.

Q: How can parents break the cycle of fear?

A: Often when people say they're worrying about their kids, they're displacing the anxieties they feel about themselves. Take parents' worries about using childcare for the first time. "I should be there for my child," the parent will say. But research shows there are no harmful effects on kids when caregivers are reliable, well-trained, and paid reasonably well.

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