Worry And Guilt - Part I

When it comes to our children, every parent has experienced the emotions of worry and guilt. In fact, I often tell my workshop participants that these two feelings in particular seem to go hand in hand with the title of Mom or Dad. Worry and guilt aren't necessarily negative of course. For example, maybe you have a nagging worry about your child's ongoing cough so you call the doctor one more time and discover that indeed, he has bronchitis. Or maybe you feel guilty because you blamed your daughter for something she didn't do, and your guilt causes you to apologize. These are the benefits of worry and guilt - they can act as a sort of conscience that nags at us until we put things right with our children. But there can be a negative side as well, and sometimes the anxiety or guilt we feel about our children can not only overwhelm us as parents, but have negative side-effects on our children as well.

Although parental worry and guilt often lead to the same thing in children * a lowered sense of self-esteem and a loss of confidence in their capabilities -- it's worth looking at each feeling separately to determine the different ways in which they cause this effect in children. Excessive worry, which we will define either as a consistent, general, non-specified feeling of uneasiness: "I just feel like something `bad' is going to happen" or recurrent / consistent anxiety about events that are unlikely to happen: "What if my child is kidnapped / gets run over by car / breaks her leg on the playground" can cause us to overprotect our children and prevent us from stimulating appropriate independence. This type of anxiety leads to parents limiting their children's activities, nagging their children to "be careful", or preventing their children from taking appropriate risks. Let's take a look at an example:

Sarah feels consistently anxious about her daughter, Susan's safety. From the time Susan was little, Sarah was always at her side, warning her not to go close to the pond in the park because she might fall in, telling her not to run because she might fall down and scrape her knee. As Susan grew, Sarah felt anxious that she might be molested when she went on a play date, and consequently limited the play dates to friends coming to her house. When Susan reached adolescence, and her friends were independently traveling around the city * to school, or to one another's houses * Sarah continued to accompany Susan whenever she had to go somewhere. Now 14, Susan is underachieving in school, seems withdrawn and is not staying connected with her friends. With these symptoms, it's quite possible that Susan is discouraged. When parents have this kind of on-going anxiety, they unintentionally lower their children's self-esteem. With regard to schoolwork, children often don't have the courage to raise their hand and ask appropriate questions, or won't risk being "wrong" and would rather give up than try in the first place. Children often lack the courage to maintain relationships when they've been discouraged in this way as well. They become afraid that their friends will hurt them * even if it's only their feelings -- and they are concerned that they can't handle the hurt. This often causes them to not reach out and make friends in the first place. Susan's withdrawal is probably a sub-symptom of discouragement and loss of self-esteem. It's possible that she's sad or even depressed because she sees that while her friends are engaging in age-appropriate independence she is not. Still fairly egocentric at this age, she assumes that the problem must be with her, not with her mother.

All of this is not to engage in parent * bashing. The truth is that we live in a complex society where things do happen that frighten us about our children's safety. And the media takes sometimes isolated or infrequent events and, in emphasizing them, adds to our anxiety as parents. However, when we let that anxiety consume us, it can eventually consume our children as well.

As parents, it's important to have a fair knowledge of what things are developmentally as well as environmentally appropriate for our children to engage in. While we don't want to send our 3 year old to the corner D'Agostino's to buy milk, this same task may be not only appropriate, but critical, to the development of an 11 year old. Likewise, we must take into careful consideration the environment that our children are growing up in * New York City. So, while some books may state that an average 1st grader can walk home from school, and indeed this is developmentally appropriate independence, our common sense as New Yorkers will tell us that it's not environmentally safe.

As with all things, balance and equilibrium are important in this parenting task. If you don't already own books that can help you understand what's developmentally appropriate for your child at certain ages, then there are many on the market that are excellent. My personal favorite is a series by the authors Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg, of the Gesell Institute of Human Development. They address each age independently and are thus entitled "Your One Year Old," "Your Two Year Old," etc. At the older ages, they've combined material, thus one of the books is entitled "Your Ten to Fourteen Year Old." Once you have a basic understanding of the developmental tasks that children must engage in to develop healthy self-esteem and confidence, then you can begin to decide what things are environmentally safe. Asking a variety of other parents whose children are the same age as yours can help you make good decisions as to your child's burgeoning independence. As always, maintain your own values and refrain from saying "yes" simply because "everyone else is."

Next month we'll talk about parental guilt and its potential negative effects on children, as well as what you can do to maintain equilibrium so that your guilt serves but does not overwhelm you or your child.