As children, we learn a great deal about fear from our parents. A parent’s fear for the child helps the child learn not to run into the street, that the iron is hot, that the electrical outlet is dangerous, etc. However, a parent’s fear may also teach the child that it is scary to go down the slide, to stay with the babysitter, to go to school, to have a sleepover, etc. In these situations, the parent is often frightened, but he or she doesn’t want to feel afraid and doesn’t want the child to experience fear, either. So, to get rid of unwanted feelings, the message is “don’t do it.” This is a different message from “yes, it’s scary, but you can do it anyway.”
Taryn was a scared child who developed into a scared adult who makes safe life choices. She came to see me because she was unhappy with her life. At 29, she was a music teacher in a suburban public school, unmarried, who lived and worked in the town next to where she grew up and where her parents still resided. She had been an “A” student in high school, and went to the local state college where she got her master’s degree in music education. In our first session, she told me: “I really wanted to be a singer. But my parents always discouraged me, saying it was no way to make a living. They encouraged me to be a teacher. I got a scholarship for college, and it wasn’t hard to get my teaching job. I lived at home the first three years I taught, and now I share an apartment with a roommate. I feel so bored. I date occasionally, but every day seems the same as the last one. I just don’t know what I want; I just know I feel empty and blah.”
As Taryn and I worked together and I got to know more about her life, past and present, I could visualize Taryn as a precocious little girl: cute, smart, and lively. She had memories of happy times with her parents—being read to, singing in the car, feeling their pride in how well she did in school. She also had memories of sleep problems, fear of going to school, and a lot of worries. In particular, she talked about not being able to fall asleep on her own until she was 10 and her parents having to stay in her room until she fell asleep. She also had separation anxiety around school, sleepovers, and in general when she felt her parents were out of contact. She recalled: “When I was 12, my friends were going away to camp for two weeks and I started to think about going too. I remember telling my parents that I was worried that I would be homesick. They encouraged me not to go and said it was silly for me to put myself through the worry. When I decided to stay home, I thought they were more relieved than I was.”
Taryn’s experience illustrates growing up with parents who are unable to contain their anxiety. To manage their feelings, anxious parents typically need their children to share their anxiety. As long as the child is anxious, the parent can feel less anxious and expect that the child will refrain from taking risks. The parent’s anxious demeanor and behavior communicate life lessons to the child: it’s not OK to take risks; it’s not OK to feel anxious; one must act in ways to get rid of the anxiety rather than feel the feelings and see what happens when action is taken.
Being a parent is by definition anxiety producing. No one teaches us how to parent. We have no road maps about how to respond to our children’s behaviors and feelings. Moreover, we have no set of instructions to help us manage our feelings. Frequently, we rely on our experiences in our families of origin to model what we should do and not do in raising our children. It is rare to hear of a parent who says to their anxious young adult child, “Don’t be an anxious parent like me. Try to contain your anxiety with your child and help him to get comfortable with all his feelings so he can go into the world and take risks. I didn’t help you with that, but maybe you can be a better parent.”
Some of us realize that it would be helpful to our children to provide them with an experience different from the one we had growing up. Glenn is the father of 4-year-old Callie. He is very aware of his tendency to worry and get anxious in the face of any possible danger. He is also aware that he is repeating with Callie the over-involved, hovering, scared demeanor that his mother had with him. In therapy, he wanted help with containing his anxiety and not communicating his fears to Callie: “When I take her to the playground, I can feel myself becoming scared and vigilant when she approaches the slide or starts running around. I think to myself, ‘Oh, no, she’s going to get hurt, I have to stop her.’ It takes so much self-control to keep my mouth shut and I don’t always succeed. I also am having conflict with my wife because I don’t want to put Callie in preschool. I keep thinking how sad and abandoned she will feel. My wife thinks I’m nuts. Maybe I am.”
Fortunately, Glenn has the ability to understand that his anxious behavior doesn’t serve Callie. He has been thinking about Callie’s future and his worries: “I can see myself holding her back in all kinds of ways. I know how scared I was trying new things. I can imagine going along with her fears. Like if she’s timid socially or nervous about trying out for a sports team, I know I’ll think of my fears as a kid and not be able to help her. I want her to be strong, able to go away to college rather than go to a commuter school like I did. I want a different experience for her.”
Even if Glenn is not yet able to change his feelings, he has been trying to alter some of his behaviors. We have agreed to work together to see if Glenn’s feelings can move closer to what he is able to know intellectually. Glenn is highly motivated. His ability to recognize the way his anxiety developed from his parents’ communications to him, his memory of his conflicts about wanting more but being terrified of the risks, and his desire to not repeat this pattern with his daughter are extremely motivating.
Worry, fear, anxiety—they serve as important warning signs that keep us safe. But if we think of the fight-or-flight continuum, parents who always signal their children to flee are, in many life circumstances, depriving their children of the diversity life has to offer. Not only are they being denied access to the wide variety of ways to participate in the world, they are being robbed of the ability to develop into individuals who are resilient, confident, and know what they want and how to get it. If parents can respond to a child with the reassuring idea that it is OK to be afraid and still choose to take risks and explore the world, they will be helping the child to learn that fear is to be respected and considered, but is not always a signal for saying no to the scary but exciting and fascinating new experiences that make us the unique individuals we keep becoming.
Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.
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