Two ways anxiety affects parents

Written by Sissy Goff
Published on November 03, 2023

In my thirty-plus years of counseling, I’ve never seen parents feel as much pressure or as much like failures as they do today. I’ve never had as many parents in tears in my office. And I’ve certainly never seen as many parents who live in a perpetual state of worry.

How would you say worry affects you, as a parent? I certainly believe, after sitting with parents day in and day out in my office, that not only do you worry more because you are a parent, but those worries affect you differently as well. I list five ways anxiety affects parents in my new book, The Worry-Free Parent, but here I want to highlight two major ways anxiety impacts the parent. 

1. Anxiety distracts us.

One of the things I hear parents say most often is how distracting anxiety is. In fact, I’ve learned through my work with kids and parents that anxiety and ADHD, particularly the inattentive kind, are almost identical symptomatically. Both cause restlessness, a lack of focus, difficulty regulating emotions, and even sleep impairment. Do any of those sound familiar? Even more specifically, have you ever found yourself

not listening to your child because you’re worried about what’s happening next on your schedule?

unable to remember the conversation you had with your daughter before the birthday party because you were concerned about how she would do once she got to the party?

unable to laugh and play with your kids, simply because of all that’s pressing in on you?

There are a million ways worry distracts us on a daily basis. But maybe one of the saddest is that it robs us of time connecting with the kids we love—really connecting in hear-their-words and look-them-in-the-eyes ways. That connection is foundational not only to building but to maintaining your relationship over the long haul. And the long haul really isn’t long enough. We want to be present for these long days and short years. We want to be able to let go of our worries in a way that keeps us in the moment, instead of imagining the future years based more on our anxious distortions than on reality.

2.Anxiety makes us attach future meaning to present problems.

In my counseling practice with kids and teens, I hear the same refrain from parents every day: 

“I don’t think I’m preparing my child well for the future.”

“I haven’t had him in travel sports, and now he’ll never be able to keep up at a high school level.”

“I haven’t had her in enough Kumon classes or tutoring, and now she won’t be able to get into the right school that will help her get into the right college.”

“She didn’t start cheerleading at four, and now we’ve lost our chance for her to ever make a competitive team.”

Do you hear the familiar thread? The parent fears something not done today will negatively impact their child’s tomorrow. The worries can be over what we believe we haven’t offered them. The sports or academics or lessons or learning opportunities we believe we’ve missed that will hinder our child’s future in some life-altering way. Or the characteristics we haven’t taught. The things we feel “all the other parents” have been doing that we haven’t been able to get done. We haven’t started chores. We haven’t been saying our grateful lists at the dinner table. 

We’re not keeping up, which means our children won’t be able to keep up—or measure up—in all the ways that will lead to their success, our anxiety tells us. But it’s simply not true.

The worries can also be over skills or traits our kids currently lack.

“Because he can’t sit still in kindergarten means he’ll never make it in grade school, and there’s no way he’ll be able to hold a job when he’s older.”

“How will she ever be able to function as an adult when she doesn’t keep her room clean now?”

“If he’s not responsible enough to remember to take out the trash at thirteen, why would I ever believe he’d be responsible enough to drive a car?”

“She thinks about herself all the time as a middle schooler. I’m not sure how she’ll ever be able to have a healthy, caring relationship with another person.”

The list goes on and on. In our worry, we become fortune tellers for our kids. We decide what’s happening now will be happening five, ten, even twenty years from now. Or what’s not happening now—either what we missed or the characteristics we believe they’re missing—will handicap them for the rest of their lives.

Kids are developing people. Their job is to learn under our roof while they’re still home with us and we can help them learn. Our job is to eventually raise healthy, well-functioning adults. Eventually is the key word. They are not those adults yet.

In terms of brain development, the last portions of our brains to develop are the frontal lobes, which house the executive functioning part of our brains. The frontal lobes help develop our working memories, dictate impulse control, help us think logically, manage our emotions, and plan for the future. In the last twenty years, neuroimaging research has taught us those frontal lobes may not be fully developed until approximately age twenty-five. Your eight-year-old isn’t capable of managing her emotions in the same way she will be at eighteen. Your twelve-year-old doesn’t yet have the skills to carry the same responsibilities he will be able to at twenty. Your fourteen-year-old is somewhat narcissistic. It’s a normal and even an important stopover on the journey of development and individuation for all kids. The narcissism will fade. He will get there. And so will she.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the kids we love, our worries take over and cause our shortsightedness to become long reaching. We decide, based on their own developmental immaturity, that something is wrong. They already should be able to _____________ (fill in the blank). Rather than seeing the gap as a normal part of their development, we believe it’s a character flaw. And worse still, one that will mark their lives, both personally and professionally, forever.

What is one way you’ve been fortune-telling about your child’s life? What’s a future, problematic meaning you’ve attached to an area in which they’re still growing?

Your child is growing into who God has created him or her to be. It is a journey and one that takes many unexpected and messy twists and turns along the way. Think back on your own becoming. What were some of your missteps, and how have they impacted your adulthood? What were some of the clumsier, less mature moments, and how have those contributed to who you are? My guess is that all of them have folded into the strengths, the character, and the wisdom that now mark not only your life but your parenthood. The same will be true for your kids. Trust the process. Trust your child. And trust that there is Someone in charge who is a much better predictor of the future than you or I.

Excerpted from The Worry-Free Parent by Sissy Goff. Copyright © August 2023 by Bethany Publishing House. Used by permission. 

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Sissy Goff

Sissy Goff, LPC-MHSP, has worked as the director of child and adolescent counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries since 1993. She speaks to parents and children’s ministers across the country and is a frequent guest on media outlets such as Southern Living, NBC Nightly News, CNN, Good Morning America, Focus on the Family, That Sounds Fun, Family Life Today, Fox News, and many more. Sissy Goff is the author of 13 books including her latest, The Worry-Free Parent. She co-hosts the chart-topping Raising Boys and Girls podcast, with fellow Daystar Counselor David Thomas. The podcast just celebrated more than 5 million downloads to date. @RaisingBoysandGirls

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