I used to think that a good mother was supposed to worry. After all, how can you love your children and not worry about them? My mother worried about me—all of the time. In fact, I grew up equating love with worry. I have even accused my husband at times of not worrying enough. What I have learned through my life experience, is that love and worry cannot exist in the same thought; one will always trump the other, the choice of which prevails depends on the thoughts you choose to think.
How to Love with Less Worry
I have a vivid memory of the dread I felt when our 3 year-old son was diagnosed with chicken pox, because I’d read an article about a child who had died from complications. Yes, indeed, fear can be a destructive emotion! My son is 37 now and I’ve learned that parents don’t stop worrying when their kids grow up. But I’ve also learned how to love with much less worry. I’m able to give my children the freedom to make choices and take some risks. Instead of rushing in with advice and warnings, I’ve come to see that teaching children to live in our fears and ignore their own feelings is an unhealthy way to navigate life’s challenges. Whether it’s worrying about health, safety, school, friends, or career choices, when we give in to negative emotions, we hurt ourselves and create anxiety for our children. And our worry does not protect them, in any case. This lesson was reinforced for me on 9/11.
A Lesson Learned
In her third year of college, our daughter told us that she wanted to spend a semester in India, Nepal and Tibet. My husband and I said no, and tried to talk her into going to a less remote place. But she impressed us with her vision and helped us move through our fears. We asked questions of the college and eventually felt comfortable enough to say yes.
On the morning of 9/11, I got dressed for my job as director of a child care center a few blocks from Ground Zero—with no idea that my world was about to explode. While I was evacuating our building, my daughter was safe in Northern India.
The tables quickly turned during those early hours after she heard about the chaos in New York and tried in vain to reach me to make sure that I was OK. My lesson: all the worry in the world cannot keep anyone safe. Our true power lies in shifting scary emotions into more positive ones—and that shift comes from within.
Watch for Mixed Messages
Many parents warn their young children to never speak to a stranger, and they sometimes spin out scary scenarios. Because of their own fears, parents pass on too much information. But I’ve also watched these same parents meet acquaintances in the market place and say to their child, “Say hello to Mrs. Smith.”
Young children may not be sure who is and who is not a stranger. In parents’ well-meaning desire to keep a young child safe as well as polite, they unconsciously create confusion.
Don’t Force a Child to ‘Be Nice’
Gently guide kids into politeness. For example, when a child shies away from a relative or your old friend, don’t ‘force’ him or her to ‘be nice.’ There’s a difference between raising a child who lacks empathy and good manners and a child who can let you know when something doesn’t feel right.
Here are some suggestions:
*Make ‘not speaking to strangers’ part of your repertoire of family rules or ways of being.
*Teach preschoolers that only grownups open doors and answer phones.
*Let young children know that when you go shopping or to the park, that ‘Mommy (Daddy or another grownup) must always be able to see you, and you must always be able to see her (or him).’
*Use ‘following family rules’ as a general guide but, at the same time, trust and show respect for children’s inner feelings.
*Having well-established rules and routines in all areas of family life will naturally blend with your guidelines and expectations about strangers. We don’t need to frighten children as a means of getting them to listen to us.
Resist the Urge to Panic
If you hear a story on the news that fills you with fear, remind yourself that you do not have to succumb to panic. Instead, make a conscious shift in your thinking. Tell yourself, for example:
“My children are always with people who love them and know how to keep them safe.”
“The percentage of children who are hurt by strangers is actually very small.”
“The news media stays in business by presenting sensational stories, they look for the scariest stories they can find.”
Using this line of reasoning, your fears will subside and you’ll be able to think more thoughts that are calming, such as:
“I have smart kids. They usually use good judgment when I’m not around.”
“I’m blowing this out of proportion.”
“I like the idea of influencing my children to trust their inner guide.”
If these statements can relieve your fears, use them. If not, come up with your own.
Once you have ‘centered’ yourself by taking the ‘charge’ out of the subject, you’ll be ready to effectively help your child.