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The Anxious Parent

Parents who worry about their kids are normal. And with terrorism and war in the news, there is more to worry about. But in his book, Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It, child and family therapist David Anderegg, Ph.D., makes the case that today's parents are taking worrying to an unhealthy extreme. While it makes sense to be anxious about global events, many parents needlessly agonize over even routine childrearing issues, says Dr. Anderegg, a professor of psychology at Bennington College in Vermont. "Worrying about terrorism is understandable," he says "but parents worry too much about the everyday aspects of parenting."

In his book, he says that today's kids are actually much safer than those of previous generations and that many of the so-called "new crises" facing children have been greatly overblown. Often, he says, fears are based on misconceptions and misinformation. So why do we sweat the little stuff so much? And how can we break the cycle of fear? Here, Dr. Anderegg offers his theories and advice.

Q: Why are you so sure that parents today are worrying about their kids more than parents in the past did?

A: There aren't specific statistics on this, because social scientists haven't thought to study this question. But Public Agenda, a nonprofit research group in New York City, recently conducted a poll of parents and found that 78% thought parenting is much harder than ever. Only 4% said it was easier. This shows that couples feel daunted by the task of parenting.

Have parents always felt this way? Well, we don't know, but as a psychologist who regularly lectures about development to parents, I hear many more questions about routine matters from parents, all asked with urgency. I'm not just asked, for example, whether toy guns are okay. I hear, "What do I do if my son points his index finger at me and says, 'Bang, bang'? And by the way, can I ask my best friend to put away the toy guns when my son visits?" This overthinking and overworrying, I believe, is new.

And this is not just a woman's issue. As more couples share parenting, I see a tremendous number of fathers with the same anxiety as mothers. The age-old pattern of mothers protecting and fathers encouraging their kids to take risks is changing.

Q: But given recent world events, don't parents today have good reason to be more worried?

A: Worrying about global events is totally justified, but parents don't have to worry about every aspect of their children's lives. By most measures, kids are healthier and safer than they have ever been. Statistics show that, for instance, child abductions by strangers and school violence are down. Recent policies requiring childproof medicine caps, car seats, and bicycle helmets have reduced accident-related fatalities. Yet parents worry more and feel less capable of making everyday decisions when it comes to their kids, and that is unnecessary.

In fact, I know some parents felt almost a sense of relief shortly after the 9/11 attacks because they suddenly felt freed from worrying about the small daily issues. Instead of fretting over whether they should let their daughter wear a navel ring, they focused on the real external dangers. But as soon as the immediate threat passed, they started worrying about navel rings again. The point is, parents feel overwhelmed by even routine childrearing decisions, and they shouldn't.

Q: Why does everyday life feel so much more dangerous than when we were growing up?

A: We're watching the news, which has become increasingly tabloidlike, on a 24-hour basis. Suddenly everything that happens with children is termed a crisis. Whether it's an incident like Columbine or last summer's child abductions, there is nonstop coverage. Watching graphic images round the clock, you can easily move from "What if that happened here?" to "It's going to happen here!" Sound social-science research demonstrates over and over that the more TV news people watch, the more they tend to overestimate the chance of bad things happening to them.

Q: You've also attributed this surge in worrying to family size. Can you explain?

A: The number of people who have one child, or are parenting their first, is the highest it's ever been. There were 16.2 million families with one child in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

By definition, parents of first children are novices. They're more likely to take notes, ask questions, and worry about their kids. Since most parents have small families today, most of the population stays in that first-child-anxiety state. In past generations, people were in that condition only temporarily because they tended to have more kids. If you have just one or two, you'll be much more anxious and preoccupied.

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.

Assuming that parents have done their homework and found good care, the evidence suggests they need not worry. So why do they? For some, the real worry is that the caregiver will harm the child because she is being financially exploited. Parents may find it hard to admit this to themselves, but many of them got a bargain on childcare. I believe they'd stop worrying so much if they acknowledged this and paid the caregiver better, since the facts seem to say that lower pay affects quality. The point: Clarify for yourself what the real issue is and examine the facts; then you can figure out how to resolve the worry.

Q: You say many parents spend too much time researching parenthood. How else can they be sure they're making the right decisions?

A: The problem with overresearching is that experts often don't agree. At some point, parents just have to trust themselves.

Common sense and decades' worth of solid parenting research tell us there are three general rules that parents can use as a guide: First, exercise moderation. Being extremely strict makes children fearful, sneaky, and dependent; extreme permissiveness tends to make children impulsive and immature. Second, be empathetic. That doesn't mean you should cave in to every demand, but it does mean you should listen carefully and acknowledge your child's emotional state. Finally, adjust your style to match your child's temperament. Think about whether your child can meet your demands. You don't need to let him dictate, for instance, when the whole family will eat dinner, but you could be flexible and perhaps feed him an early dinner or let him have a late afternoon snack if you know he can't wait until 6 o'clock.

When parents follow these guidelines, they'll realize that they don't have to spend endless hours on the Internet trying to track down the latest study or reading what the experts have to say. It's ironic, but parenting is one of those things that really works best when you stop trying so hard.

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Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the May 2003 issue of Child magazine.