How To Stop Feeling Guilty That You’re Screwing Up Your Anxious Kid (You’re Not)
As a parent, it isn’t always easy to know how to stop feeling guilty especially when it comes to our children, and seeing them overwhelmed with anxiety. Not only do you blame yourself when you see them distraught, you worry about screwing them up further by responding the “wrong” way.
In feeling so much guilt worrying that you are not doing a good job as a parent, you can overwhelm yourself. And worse, miss out on the wisdom that YOUR anxiety can offer you.
When you get mired in your own guilt about screwing up your anxious kid, you have exacerbated your own base level parenting anxiety to the point where you become muddled and confused. And this confusion can get you focused in the wrong place – on your kids rather than yourself.
When it seems like your child’s anxiety is the source of your worry, rather than your guilt, it can be tempting to try removing that stressor. But when you try to alleviate or suppress your child’s anxiety, you are barking up the wrong tree.
If you don’t learn to handle your own anxiety and benefit from its wisdom, you will seek to control your children’s experience, and this doesn’t work. At some level you want them to stop feeling anxious so you can stop feeling guilty and calm down.
As understandable as this can be, it has two dangerous effects:
- You focus on the wrong thing, the anxiety, rather than what is pointing to, which perpetuates the cycle of anxiety feeding anxiety;
- You lose sight of what your child really needs from you – empathy.
So with that in mind, let’s walk through how to reverse those effects by working with anxiety.
How To Stop Focusing On The Wrong Thing (and Embrace Your Anxiety)
DO NOT use your discomfort about anxiety to compound your guilt. Remember you are not alone and anxiety is not a bad thing. With the flood of negative information out there about anxiety, it can be easy to see anxiety as something to get rid of or a sign of having done something wrong.
Rather, aim to remember that anxiety is a natural, built-in alarm system meant to draw awareness to something that requires attention.
The experience of anxiety, and parenting anxiety in particular, can increase focus and motivation (which is a plus). Anxiety is there to help, not hinder.
When you can recognize the gift of anxiety, you can give yourself permission to feel ok about being anxious and use it to direct your attention to what needs to be handled.
You might be thinking, “But anxiety feels awful, why would I want to be okay with it?” Well, for one very good reason – when you resist anxiety, you actually exacerbate it. It fights harder to get your attention and generates thoughts that exaggerate possibilities (ways that you will screw up your kids) versus the probabilities (ways that you won’t screw up your kids).
Instead of resisting it, you can recognize it and manage it. Studies show that the prefrontal cortex – the decision making part of the brain – can be adversely affected by stress, but if the person feels like they have a sense of control over the stress they are still able to think clearly.
How do you manage anxiety?
Focusing on the probabilities (what is actually likely to happen) is always the better approach than going down the rabbit hole of endless and disastrous possibilities. This is one of the most important aspects of sorting anxiety that I discuss in more detail in my book, Hack Your Anxiety, and in my online courses.
“Anxiety is an invitation for growth – a call to step up and face the road ahead” (Hack Your Anxiety)
Building Empathy For Your Child (And Yourself)
The other thing to understand is that anxiety can tempt myopic thinking, and make it harder to think about another person’s (your kid’s) perspective. Doing the right thing as parents is almost always as simple as including more empathy. We can never go wrong as parents when we broaden our view to include the perspective – and feelings – of our kids.
It is important, however, to first have empathy for yourself as a parent and appreciate yourself for caring so much about your child. We worry because we care, not because we are crazy. Thinking about anxiety as a reflection of your top priorities can help you embrace it as a resource.
Not only does it reflect our priorities, anxiety also holds a mirror up to the pain we hold inside from previous experiences. Few responsibilities are tougher – or elicit more childhood memories – than parenting.
If you have unresolved feelings from your childhood, it is an absolute guarantee that your child will push buttons that trigger those same feelings. Almost always, this causes anxiety and drives you to try controlling your child’s behavior so you don’t have to feel those feelings. You aren’t doing anything wrong and neither are they. It is a natural reaction.
The problem is that if you try to manage the anxiety by focusing on them, you are just putting a bandaid on it and it will come up again the next time they do that thing and press that button. Instead, empathize with the child in you that is showing up scared, angry or sad when those buttons are pushed.
In order to stop the repeating cycle and feeling guilty, it is important to learn how to handle those buttons. The good news is that with practice, it is possible to “rewire” our reactions and remove those buttons or change the response they elicit.
Are you beginning to appreciate how brilliantly this interconnectedness works – how perfectly the parent-child relationship brings up what needs to be attended to and healed – and the essential role anxiety plays in the process?
I hope so, because once you accept and appreciate yourself and your anxiety, you can accept and appreciate your child and their anxiety. You are then ready. This is when empathy can move outward and you can support your child by tuning into them and validating their experience.
Even if you don’t agree with how they are feeling, being empathic to their feelings goes a long way in helping them feel heard, understood, and calmer.
Learning to embrace anxiety and develop empathy for yourself and your child, strengthens your capacity to manage anything on which anxiety shines its light. When you realize that you and your child are incredibly resilient, you will know how to stop feeling guilty about screwing up your anxious kid.
Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash