Worried Sick About Your Child’s Future? How to Stop the Anxiety

by Debbie Pincus MS  LMHC

 

We’ve all been there: Your child misbehaves at a family gathering, and you  leapfrog ahead to the future, where you see him making exactly the same kinds of  mistakes in his adult life—times 10. Or your preteen daughter seems unmotivated  at school and fails Algebra, and you start wondering if she’ll be able to  graduate high school, or even hold a job some day.

It’s  important to understand that anxiety leads our brains to play tricks on us. It  fools us out of the now and into worrying about tomorrow.

 

This is called “Futurizing,” and it’s one of the most negative and  potentially destructive things we can do as parents. Understand that  futurizing—taking a present action or behavior and imagining a much worse  outcome in the future—is not the same as recognizing a problem and putting a  plan into place to help your child. (I’ll talk more about that in a minute.)

Related:  Does worrying about your child keep you up at night?

Why Do We Futurize?

We have enough to concern  ourselves with in the present—why add more burden  by worrying about the future?  Still, most of us slide into this form of  parental worrying from time to time. We  think, “My son is so disrespectful. How  will he keep a job or be a good husband  some day?” Or, “My kid lies all the  time. How will anyone ever trust her?” Or  we worry that our introverted child  will never have friends since he likes to  spend so much time alone. It’s easy  to make ourselves anxious by jumping to the  future in our minds—and  unfortunately once we get there, we remain in an  anxious state or even become  permanently panicky about our child’s prospects.

It’s important to understand  that anxiety leads our brains to play tricks on  us. It fools us out of the now and into worrying about  tomorrow. It  makes our focus rigid and keeps the present, real issues out of  sight. Anxiety  gets in our way of solving problems—and in the way of our ability to help  our  child. We can’t see ourselves or them very clearly when we’re feeling this  way.  Of course, we can’t help our child very effectively when our own perspective  is  distorted. Anxiety also makes us more judgmental and critical, and promotes   catastrophic and “extreme” thinking. Although it is  the anxiety talking in  these situations, the danger here is that we start to believe what it  is saying—and we respond  to it as if it is our logical thought.

Related:  Is your child’s behavior getting worse?

How We Create What We Most Worry about Happening

Futurizing can create what we  most worry about happening. I once worked with  a mother who worried that her  child would grow up with low self-esteem because  the mom felt that she herself  lacked it. So she praised and put lots of  positive focus on her child with the  hope that her child would feel good about  herself and grow up with more  self-esteem than this mother did. Now, despite  the mom’s best intentions, her  child grew up dependent on constant praise and  attention from others, which left  her feeling insecure by her teen years. She  was nearly unable to feel good  about herself when she didn’t get constant  praise and attention from others,  and she became reliant on it. She was  programmed to expect it. Sadly, this was  just what her mom was trying to  prevent.

If this mom would have been  able to remain in the now, she would have been  less anxious and therefore more  able to see her child with more objectivity.  She would more clearly have seen  what her daughter actually needed (or didn’t  need) in order to develop  self-esteem. Putting a plan into place that will help  your child in the present will do her—and you—the most good.

Worrying is detrimental to you because it causes stress and robs you of  energy. Stop and  imagine what you would do with all the time you’d have if you  stopped worrying about your child’s future. Now just concentrate on what’s  happening with her right now. You might not feel great about the behavior  she’s displaying, but I’ll bet it’s a lot more manageable than trying to  troubleshoot her entire life from where you stand now. Remember, you  don’t need to feel bad  for something in advance; just focus on what’s going on  in the moment, and take  it one step at a time.

Related:  “Calm is contagious.” How to stop anxiety from ruling your  family.

Here are five things you can do today to stop  worrying and start  concentrating on who your child is right now.

  1. Remember  that kids change. Remind yourself that kids grow and change and  develop and mature. Trust  this natural process. What you see now is not  necessarily what you’ll see in  the future. Kids need guidance and direction, but  proper guidance comes from  clearly seeing what they need today so that they can do better  tomorrow. James Lehman says to act “as if” with your child.  What this means is  that you act “as if” your child is behaving responsibly.  Start expecting that  of your child, and you might see a change in their  behavior. Stop your own  imagined fears and projections from running over  you so that you can see your  kids and parent them from clear lenses.
  2. Be  careful not to assign meaning to  the behavior you are seeing. The  interpretation might be more  about you than the child. Ask yourself, “What do I  see and hear, what is in  front of me, what are the facts?” versus imagining,  worrying and projecting.  Remind yourself that kids are works in progress. Rather  than being anxious  about why they are doing what they’re doing and putting  meaning to it, instead  remind yourself they just haven’t yet learned the  repertoire of skills that  will help them to do better. Knowing you can provide  those skills for them can  help you calm down and do something productive. You  can guide them to make  better choices with consequences, boundaries and limits,  rather than  spending your time worrying about the poor choices they make and  what that  means for their future.
  3. Know the difference between what is versus what you think or imagine. Learn your own  history well enough so that you know  yourself. This will help you to know when  you might be projecting something  about yourself onto your child versus when  something is actually about the  child. For example, if you know that you come  from a family that was always  anxious about sickness and health issues, you  will be better able to know if  you are holding your child back from  participating in certain activities  because of her own vulnerabilities or  because of your unresolved issues in your  own family.
  4. Worry  is futurizing.Understand that worrying is futurizing. If you find  yourself going down  the rabbit hole, stop and ask yourself these questions:
    • What is the likelihood of that  happening? Is this  realistic?
    • What do I actually see and hear, not  what am I  afraid of seeing and hearing or what I’m imagining all this  means.
    • Why am I worried about this particular  thing? Is it  more about my own resolved issues or more about my child? If  there’s something  there, then how can I cope?
    • Am I jumping to conclusions,  over-generalizing, mind  reading, projecting? What are the actual facts that I  need to pay attention to?

    By pausing and doing an inventory  of what’s going on  inside you, you’ll have a good chance to stop worrying and  start focusing on  how to problem solve the task at hand.

  5. Practice meditation and  mindfulness. Include in  your life the things that will lower  your anxiety and help you to live in the  present. You might take a walk, pray,  do yoga, or just sit in the sun for a  moment clearing your head. This will not  only help your personal growth, it  will help you to know where you end and  where your child begins. Defining  yourself and being securely planted in the  present will allow you to raise kids  who will thrive in the future.

Related:  The secret to changing your kids’ behavior: Teach them how to  problem-solve.

Staying in the present, not  worrying about the future, and knowing what  belongs to us—and not them—helps us  see what our children actually need now and  then we can provide it. After all,  that’s all we have control over. Staying  firmly planted in the present helps  you see if you are reacting to something  your child actually said or did,  something you imagine your child said  or did, or something you fear that  your child might say or do in the  future.

You will better know where your child is coming from when you’re paying   attention to what’s going on in the present.

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