By Debra Kissen, PhD, & Micah Ioffe, PhD, coauthors of Overcoming Parental Anxiety
If your typical day involves more moments of parenting-related anxiety than love and affection, you’re in good company. Parents in the United States today are actually less happy overall than childless adults, and research supports the notion that parents tend to experience more emotional pain than nonparents (Glass et al., 2016). It can feel frustrating that with all of the potential for meaning and deep connection built into parenting, the stress can overshadow the joy.
One reason parenthood is associated with so much stress and anxiety is that the modern parent brain hasn’t evolved much from prehistoric times. Your 2022 brain “on parenting” is constantly scanning for lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and many other physical threats to survival.
Twenty-first century living certainly does not come with guarantees of safety and security, but the kind of 24-7 focused attention required of our prehistoric ancestors is no longer required for the survival of offspring. But try explaining that to YOUR parent brain, which is just trying to keep you and your children safe. While our species survived thanks largely to this high-alert, protective parent brain, its excessive and overactive fight-flight-freeze system can lead to burnout, chronic stress, and decreased life satisfaction.
The good news is that you can provide your prehistoric parent brain with a system upgrade, and train it to distinguish between true threats and modern life challenges. By engaging in the exercises below, you can train your parent brain to move through and past modern-day life stressors with enhanced ease, while experiencing less stress and anxiety, as well as increased joy and life satisfaction.
Choose Reality Over Catastrophe
The “Parent Brain” has a way of quickly shifting from considering a small problem to the worst possible scenario your child could experience. The hardworking parent brain believes it is necessary to remind you of everything that could go horribly wrong, as a way to somehow prevent these adverse events from occurring.
Sample Parent Brain Rewiring Exercise: Helpful Information or Brain Spam?
Take a moment to visualize your email inbox. How likely are you to open an email titled, “You Just Won a FREE Trip to Jamaica! CLICK NOW TO REDEEM,” versus an email titled, “Your Monthly Utility Bill”? Some emails are obviously spam; others contain helpful information (HI). Of course, it is also possible to receive messages that aren’t so black-and-white, and require some further investigation. By engaging in the following logic-based exercise, you’ll be better able to sort through parenting worry thoughts, place most in your mental trash folder, and avoid wasting time and energy reviewing their irrelevant content that you could better devote to more deserving aspects of your life.
For the next week, keep a log of all the moments when you find yourself stuck in a parenting-related worry thought. (You can also access a free, blank worry thought tracking form here.)
- Details of the situation: where you were, what you were doing
- The content of your worry thought
- Whether your parent brain offered you helpful information (write HI) or brain spam (write BS)
Practice Mindful Parenting
The more time you spend mindfully engaging with your child, the less time you’ll have to spend worrying about them. Plus, it is oh-so-much-more fun to connect with your child and enjoy their company than to worry about all of the scary, terrible things that could go wrong for them at some unknown point in the future. So, if you feel yourself stuck in a parenting worry loop, practice gently bringing your attention back to the present moment. You can’t be mindfully engaged in the present moment and worry at the same time. It is actually impossible. So just keep gently reminding yourself, “I can’t control what is going to happen in the future, but I can live out this very moment to the fullest.” You don’t need to schedule additional hours into your busy schedule to start practicing mindful parenting. Seize a moment or two, thirty seconds or ten minutes, while engaging with your child during your everyday interactions like car rides, walks, or bedtime routines. Practicing mindfulness is like training the mind as a muscle, the same way you would train other parts of your body at a gym: by working on it repeatedly. As a result, keeping your brain focused on the present moment can, over time, train your brain to handle these types of stressors better.
Sample Parent Brain Rewiring Exercise: Practice Mindfully Attending to Your Child
A standard parenting moment usually entails simultaneously reviewing jam-packed agendas, racing thoughts, and offering a small smidgen of your attention to your child. A mindful parenting moment entails actively choosing to gather all of your attentional resources and placing this magical power upon your child. This is an exercise that is challenging and may be difficult to engage in for more than five minutes, when you first begin working out this critical but underutilized mental muscle. Don’t get discouraged if you find it extremely challenging. We promise it will be, so don’t be surprised when it is. Just like beginning a new strength-training regimen at the gym, you may only be able to start off lifting ten-pound weights. But if you commit to a steady, ongoing training schedule, soon enough you will get stronger and be able to increase the weights you incorporate into your workout.
1. Sit down with your child and ask how their day is going.
2. Ask your child to simply speak for one minute about their day.
3. Partially attend to what your child is saying while at the same time attending to all other thoughts and feelings that show up. Feel free to think of what you need to get done, what else you’ve got going that day, whether this is a good use of your time, and so on.
1. Ask your child to continue telling you about their day for another minute.
2. This time, practice mindfully attending to what your child is saying.
3. When your thoughts and feelings surface and intrude on the present moment, notice and acknowledge the thoughts and feelings, then gently return your attention to your child and all that they are sharing with you.
Compare and contrast these two experiences, and ask your child about their experience engaging in a distracted versus mindful fashion.
Relinquish Control of What Cannot Be Controlled
It is a common belief that striving for control will help keep you and your loved ones safe, and motivate you to take appropriate action. Many parents fear that allowing their child to choose rather than being told how to proceed, in various aspects of their life, will increase the odds of potentially disastrous outcomes. They fear that relinquishing parenting control will leave them feeling even more stressed, anxious, and worried for their child’s current and future well-being. But the more you attempt to control, the more out of control you feel. It takes effort to flip the script from seeing a parent’s job as maintaining maximum control to seeing it as slowly shifting from control to support mode, once a child is old enough to learn how to manage select aspects of their life.
Sample Parent Brain Rewiring Exercise: To Control or Not to Control
Over the course of a week, note any parenting moments when you find yourself engaging in a power struggle with your child. Whenever you feel the need to exert control over your child’s actions, take the following steps:
- Note how much distress you feel as you grasp for control, from zero to ten.
- Note any physical sensations of discomfort or catastrophic thoughts about either you as a parent or the situation.
- Consider whether grasping for control of this particular moment brings you closer to your parenting values or not.
- Assess how much danger your child would actually be in if you decided to drop the rope in this situation and allow them to choose how to proceed.
- Look for any overall themes and patterns. What are the nuances and distinctions between the scenarios when your parent brain is willing to relinquish a bit more control to your child, and the ones when your brain struggles to loosen the reins and allow for child-guided decision-making?
Which fears showed up for you? Did you notice your parent brain trying to justify why you shouldn’t let go of control over select areas? Did you notice the difference between reason-based choosing to maintain maximum parental control over a sphere of your child’s life and those that were more fear-based reactions?
When to Seek Help
Worrying about your child/children is common, and in fact impossible to not experience occasionally. But if you feel overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, it may be time to seek professional help. And you don’t need to wait for things to get worse before reaching out to a mental health professional. A little bit of support and guidance can go a long way in helping you to obtain relief from emotional discomfort and a revitalized sense of joy and life purpose.
Debra Kissen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, and CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Center. Kissen specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety and related disorders, and is coauthor of The Panic Workbook for Teens, Rewire Your Anxious Brain for Teens, and Break Free from Intrusive Thoughts. Kissen also has a special interest in the principles of mindfulness and their application for anxiety disorders, and has presented her research on CBT and mindfulness-based treatments for anxiety and related disorders at regional and national conferences.
Micah Ioffe, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders across the life span, with a particular interest and specialized training in the treatment of selective mutism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). Ioffe is a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF), and the Selective Mutism Association. She is coauthor of Rewire Your Anxious Brains for Teens and Break Free from Intrusive Thoughts.