Managing social anxiety as a parent
October 11, 2015 3:09 AM   Subscribe

How do parents with anxiety protect their children from their own worries and fears?

I'm thinking about becoming a mother and I struggle with social anxiety. I function well at work and I have a loose circle of friends, but I frequently "freeze up" in social interactions. I have some generalized anxiety as well and am basically a tightly wound person. I've been through therapy in the past. I take medication, am satisfied with my life and consider myself highly functioning. Yet to a certain extent I know that my anxiety is a deep part of my personality and a big driver in my life. (For example, I am very goal oriented and perfectionistic, which I trace to my anxiety to a large extent.)

I think about what kind of parent I would like to be and I aspire to be someone who is fairly hands-off in terms of letting my child explore the world and make mistakes without micromanaging or being over-protective. Yet, I know myself, and I wonder if I'd end up being sheltering, overprotective, etc. and I wonder how I can counteract this if it ends up being my "mode" as a parent. I also would like to see my child be able to form strong relationships, yet I don't have many close friends in my life and I'm insecure about being able to model these things for my children - how build relationships and friendships with others, how to comfortably interact in social interactions.

I wanted to hear from 1. people whose parent(s) had social anxiety or anxiety in general. How did this affect you? and 2. parents with social anxiety. How do you manage this within your family and how has it affected your children? What has helped? Thanks in advance for your input.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I have anxiety in parenting, and used to have much more, in part because my first child passed away. I have three kind of basic principles:

1. I reality-check my anxiety with my partner, although I also sometimes allow myself to just make a decision on the over cautious side.

2. I express my anxiety as "I'm feeling nervous about..." Instead of "this is so dangerous!!" as much as I can.

3. I try to remember the goal for my kids is a happy life rich with experience, not a life managing my fear.

No one has to be perfect for their kids or provide a perfect experience. Parenting is a relationship as well as a verb and being age-appropriately honest helps. If you have friends and family you're almost there, and trust that you will sort out a balance with making a few mom friends and play dates, with also time home to recharge.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:58 AM on October 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have a little boy who wins awards at school for being helpful. I felt like other people were hell and wondered how I was going to pull this off. We started this "stupid stories about my childhood" thing instead of bedtime reading which got us into deeper conversations about all kinds of things. There was nothing he couldn't ask me and now there is nothing I can't ask him. I really like this warm little thing crawling into my bed two hours before we have to get up and throwing baffling questions at me.

I think the key is to express your own fears and make it clear that they don't have to be afraid of the same things and then ask what they are afraid of. Eyeopening.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:20 AM on October 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

I read this and wanted to give you a hug, and to let you know that it will be OK. You're managing your (child-free) anxiety, and are having worries that other potential and new moms have. Would it help you to hear that your child may surprise you, and that there's a good chance that he or she will be the kind of kid who thrives on making new friends and being adventurous? Because that's a possibility. You may end up hanging back, watching your daughter go sit down with other little girls she has just met or watching her tear around on a little 4-wheeler because she gets such joy out of speed (ask me how I know).

I try to remember the goal for my kids is a happy life rich with experience, not a life managing my fear.

Oh, this is so good. They get to be at the center of their own experiences. Not you. They have a right to their own ways of meeting the world, within reason. It may help you to read books like Lenore Skenazy's "Free-Range Kids" (blog) or Julie Lythcott-Haims's "How to Raise an Adult" or other books that are going to scare you a little; let them. It may help you to register other possibilities within yourself. It may take some time to know, really know, that there's value in letting a child make mistakes and take risks and do things that make *your* nervous responses flood you.

The thing that has helped most is having a weird internal yardstick: Does letting my child do this thing contribute to making him/her a more competent, empathetic, analytical human being? Because that goal is bigger than my fears.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:33 AM on October 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Hug from here too.

They run away from you in dark parking garages full of moving vehicles, squirt themselves in the eyes with floor polish when you answer the phone, drink your cocktail and crash into the window, play with knives they extract from the dishwasher and eat things they shouldn't. This is disaster management. You will never imagine or think of all the trouble.

The thing I never thought I would say to anyone was "The transmission will crack your head, Do not dive under cars. This is not your superpower and you just scared the shit out of me."

Things are much calmer now.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 7:32 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

How do parents with anxiety protect their children from their own worries and fears?

As a child of someone with this and other mental health issues, I'll tell you this: they usually don't. Something to think about.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:55 AM on October 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Saw this on NPR recently:

Children of anxious parents are more at risk of developing an anxiety disorder. But there's welcome news for those anxious parents: that trajectory toward anxiety isn't set in stone.

Therapy and a change in parenting styles might be able to prevent kids from developing anxiety disorders, according to research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry Friday.

posted by radiomayonnaise at 9:05 AM on October 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

My parents have anxiety and OCD. Growing up I was afraid to take risks because I was afraid to do something "wrong" -- they were incredibly conscientious about any work that they did and I was afraid that I was not going to be able to live up to those same standards. I held myself back by excessively monitoring everything i did to make sure it was good enough rather than just letting go of the fear and going for it. I missed out on a lot of social interaction that way.

My parents weren't mean or strict in any way whatsoever. But they'd step in and "save" me from situations that caused my anxiety. I got asked to the homecoming dance freshman year and I was scared to go. My mom helped me write a script on paper that I could reference when I called back and declined the invitation. What she should have done was say "Don't be so nervous -- get over it, go and have fun!" The fact that she helped me avoid the situation just solidified the fact in my mind that I probably couldn't handle it.

Things got a lot better when I got away and went to college out of state. It was life changing. My sister, on the other hand, never escaped from her anxiety. She's nearly 40 and my parents still have a "caretaker" relationship with her. They orchestrated the purchase of a house for her and they handle all of the maintenance. They buy her vehicles and handle any maintenance and repairs. They still take her on vacation, take her dog for daily walks, etc. She's never had a boyfriend or any adult friends. It's really sad and it drives me crazy but no one wants to change.

Now. My kids. I have 2. One is in counseling for anxiety. She goes once a month. It's a positive experience for her. She has good solid relationships with her friends. And I don't let her hide behind her anxiety or try to protect her from normal things .... I love and support her but I'm not going to let her run away from experiences that will broaden her horizons. I have no doubt that she will conquer her anxiety and contribute lots of good things to this world. The other child is totally laid back and is doing well in every facet of life.

You will be fine. Your kids will be fine. You're intelligent and kind. You just have to encourage your future kids to face their fears rather than run away from them, and get them help if they need it.
posted by Ostara at 10:17 AM on October 11, 2015 [12 favorites]

My mother has anxiety which she does not acknowledge or seek treatment for. She has always had this and it has had a detrimental effect on my life as well as my siblings lives, and it continues to be the one thing that tears me down and causes me to rock slowly back in forth in a dark room from time to time.

I have three wonderful children and anxiety which I do acknowledge and seek treatment for. My children are delightful, social children. My son just turned 18 and is doing very well. My older two children both have anxiety and we all work together with therapists to cope with this. They know that they can come to me because I go through it as well and I can understand what they are dealing with.

You are an enlightened person who wants to be the best parent that she can be. Your future child will be very blessed to have you as a mom. You can totally do this.
posted by myselfasme at 8:26 PM on October 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think that as long as you are aware of your tendency towards anxiety, and are mindful of it in your parenting, you'll be able to manage just fine. I think the kids whose anxious parents really screw them up are the ones who are unaware or in denial, and act like their anxieties are gospel truth.

Also, it's amazing how much personality seems to be innate, rather than taught. Of course it's also shaped by environment, but your kids may come out very different than you and even from each other, if you have more than one. They might be little social butterflies, who knows! Their personalities will likely shape your parenting style.

For example, my son is so risk-averse that when he does try something dangerous, I've trained myself to grit my teeth and let him. Even though it's hard. Last week he knocked his front teeth loose after a big scooter crash, and I just washed him up and made him a dentist appointment and told him maybe next time he should watch out for big bumps in the sidewalk and slow down when he sees one. And got him a new helmet.

It's really intimidating when they're babies because everything is new and scary and they seem so fragile, but they get bigger, and you get some crises under your belt, and you handle them, so you gain confidence in your ability to handle the next one.

I tend towards the anxious about certain things, but I've always tried really hard to project an air of calm and confidence in front of the kids. It takes a lot of mental energy to maintain sometimes, but I think it's been good for them. When my son gets in an anxious spiral (What if $thing? But what if $worse thing? But what if $catastrophic thing?) what gets him out of it is for me to tell him very firmly that I'm his mom, and it's my job to take care of him, and $catastrophic thing is not going to happen, but if it does, I'll keep him safe. It's not his job to worry about $catastrophic thing, it's my job, and I'll handle it.
posted by telepanda at 11:35 AM on October 12, 2015

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