I was four sons into motherhood and still hadn’t reckoned with my anxiety. I hadn’t gotten help, mainly because I had no awareness I could have any power over my anxiety and didn’t have a clue anxiety was treatable.
My anxiety was on spin cycle…What if my sons didn’t like school or played too many video games? What if they got hurt in contact sports? Was their diet healthy enough? Was the youngest child getting ripped off…when was the last time I read that child a book? And fast forward several years…What if they crashed the car? (they did).
Catastrophic thinking, “what ifs,” and fears of uncertainty and imperfection seemed “normal” parts of my day I’d just have to get used to. Physiological manifestations—rapid heart rate, jumpy knees and tight chest—were sensations I’d just had to live with…permanently.
How wrong was I.
When one of my sons was diagnosed with post concussion syndrome, I immersed myself into a world of neuroscience and learned about the impact of stress on the brain. For the first time, I became aware that an anxiety disorder was a combination of nature and nurture. Whoa! This nurture part was breaking news and sparked a new way of thinking about my anxiety: I couldn’t change my genes, but I could change my environment.
To do this, I had to take an honest look at how anxiety was affecting my parenting. This was a wakeup call moment, and it might be for you as well. Our children are sponges and interpret the world by how we face situations. Not only did I want to begin managing my anxiety, I was motivated to make adjustments in my parenting approaches that reflected a willingness to change and model a healthy set of coping skills so my children would soak that up.
And so began a journey that transformed my approach to motherhood.
The Power of Environment
Anxiety is contagious, and it can interfere with your parenting. You can even unwittingly transfer your anxiety to your child.
If you asked my four sons who they learned anxiety from, they’d all point to me. I don’t say this to shame or guilt trip myself…accepting the truth inspired me to change my modeling, mindset, habits, decision making, messaging and ways of communicating, which ultimately empowered me…and my children.
Helping myself helped my kids.
For years, anxiety drove the bus in my parenting approach. Fear of imperfection prevented me from showing vulnerability and sharing past mistakes with my kids. Being uncomfortable with failure, I was terrified of my sons experiencing it themselves, which at times led me to do too much of the thinking for them and deprived them of valuable learning experiences to make their own mistakes, learn from them and build life-long skills.
Children look to us for how to interpret uncertain, challenging and potentially dangerous situations. If getting in an elevator, going to a party or driving on the highway consistently makes us anxious, there’s a good chance our kids will perceive these situations as scary and perhaps want to avoid them and other anxiety-provoking situations as well.
There’s evidence that children of anxious parents are more likely to pick up on and show learned anxious behaviors. On the flip side, kids with anxious parents who understand how anxiety works and manage it with a set of helpful strategies, often don’t exhibit symptoms. Yep, environment matters.
So, on my journey I began recognizing anxiety’s predictable patterns and built skills to help me combat anxiety’s demands. Moreover, I learned helpful strategies that improved my well being and cultivated a healthier environment for my family and parenting approaches.
Once you start noticing and “catching” these patterns in the act, you’re on your way to developing a new relationship with anxiety. Making adjustments with the following patterns were and continue to be difference makers for me, and might be for you too:
Patterns of Anxiety & Skillbuilding Steps
- What it looks like: When you play it safe and jump in only when you’re sure to succeed, or when you run from imperfection or anxiety provoking situations and challenges, you are communicating messages of fear that undoubtedly will impact your children.
- What you can do: In the face of challenges, step in to show courage and resilience, even when it’s hard or you’re scared. Get comfortable with uncertainty and focus on improvement vs. perfection.
Catastrophic Thinking Pattern
- What it looks like: If your anxiety has a fantastic imagination and focuses on worst case scenarios or perceives the world as a scary place, your child takes note. When you time travel by ruminating on past mistakes and fearing the future, your child feels that.
- What you can do: Train your anxiety to acknowledge and accept that yes, the world can be scary, and you can courageously deal with it anyway. This flip sends a message to kick into problem solving mode.
- What it looks like: Things didn’t go as planned, so you dig in your heels and become inflexible or stuck in your thinking and actions.
- What you can do: Be open to considering other options or Plan B. This teaches your child flexibility and to turn lemons into lemonade.
Permanence/Global Thinking Pattern
- What it looks like: An unproductive thought pattern emerges when you think and use language that send “all or nothing” messages or that change isn’t possible. Do you think or say: “This always happens to me or I’ll never be good at…”
- What you can do: Keep things in perspective and realize you can always change your thinking and habits because your brain changes based on how you use it.
Internally Focused Pattern
- What it looks like: You’re preoccupied by your worried thoughts, which can rob you of joy and present moments.
- What you can do: Notice when your mind drifts and bring it back to the present. Externalize your thoughts by expressing your feelings via talking, writing, drawing or movement.
Whether you’ve dealt with anxiety in the past or are just coming to terms with it, motherhood is an opportune time to empower yourself with information, tips and skills to help you thrive in one of the toughest and most joyful jobs you’ll ever have.
I was well into motherhood and still unprepared and unequipped to manage my anxiety. It doesn’t have to be that way for you.
Motherhood is an amazing period to give birth to new ideas and habits that facilitate not just your kids’ growth, but yours too. No matter where you are on your parenting journey, you can learn how to cultivate an environment that puts you, not anxiety, in charge, and sets powerful, inspiring examples for your kids in the process. By facing anxiety head on and employing helpful strategies, anxiety will take up less space in your brain, allowing you to stress less, enjoy more and focus on what’s really important along your journey: being a present and healthy mom and parent.
Neuroeducational Consultant Noel Foy, commonly known as Neuro Noel, is a former classroom teacher and Learning Specialist whose mission is to empower teachers, parents and students with practical ways to decrease stress and boost learning, executive function, engagement and a growth mindset. She is the founder of AMMPE and Author of A.B.C. Worry Free, a children’s book that provides an actionable approach to managing anxiety and includes tips for educators and parents. Join Neuro Noel’s email list and be sure to engage on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Instagram.