Every parent has experienced it…WORRY and FEAR for your child.
It seems universal, right?… Parenting is one of life’s most meaningful experiences, but seems to come with an inherent tendency to worry.
Our society seems to spend so much time comparing, contrasting, and (dare I say) judging the different parenting styles, choices, and decisions made by moms, dads, and caregivers. It can be overwhelming and scary terrain when concerns or issues surface with your child. Where is a safe place to look for support? For the right information? For the right resources?
From the very start…Becoming a parent often opens an invitation for unwanted and unsolicited scrutiny by family members and strangers alike. But some of the most fulfilled and resilient parents (across all cultures and regardless of circumstance) are those that have a strong sense of belonging and connection to a positive support network. The old saying…”It takes a village” is just as important today, as it was before we lived in such a fast-paced, digital and transient society.
But despite the vastly different perspectives and opinions…I think we could all agree on a few fundamental, guiding principles that resonate in the hearts of parents…
What happens when these basic parenting principles are challenged or threatened?
There are countless circumstances that can elicit anxiety and fear responses for a parent.
- Is my child experiencing a medical problem?
- Has my child been injured?
- Is my child not meeting developmental milestones?
- Is my child not being accepted by their peers?
- Is my child struggling in school?
- Is my child being teased or bullied?
- Will my child be able to function and live independently as they transition to adulthood?
Caring for a child with special needs or complex medical conditions can bring additional unique challenges, worries or fears. Caregivers often exhibit elevated cortisol levels from chronic anxiety and fatigue that can lead to serious health implications.
The stress hormone, cortisol, has been referred to as “public health enemy number one”. Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. Both eustress (“good stress”) and distress (“bad stress”) release cortisol. Once the alarm to release cortisol has been triggered, your body becomes mobilized and ready for action—but there has to be a physical release of fight or flight. Without a physical release, cortisol levels build up in the blood and disrupt the function of your mind and body.As a healthcare professional, I have worked with countless families that are functioning from a perspective of fear and anxiety. And as a fellow parent, I have personally experienced challenging times and circumstances that caused me to function from a state of fear and anxiety. It doesn’t feel good. It is overwhelm, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and/or hyperarousal. It can be survival mode. It doesn’t bring out the best in us, our children, or have a positive impact on others around us. It often causes us to build up walls of defensiveness, scrutiny, or even worse….blame, self-pity, depression, anger, or rage.
Effective methods of caregiving, educating and loving lead us to build bridges of connection, acceptance, compassion and empathy with others. But that can be incredibly difficult, or near impossible, if we are functioning from a state of anxiety and fear. Fearful parenting works against our ability to effectively connect, collaborate and problem-solve with others. But how can we stop functioning from a state of fearful parenting? How can others support and encourage us? And how can we support and encourage others?
- Ask for Help: Our society places so much value on independence and self-sufficiency. And don’t misunderstand…There can be tremendous triumph in achieving greater levels of independence. But it can also be very lonely if we have isolated ourselves from others in our quest to achieve independence. Don’t be too proud to ask for help. Asking for help should not be regarded as a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to share your vulnerabilities with others and ask for help. Consider what you would do for a friend in their time of need. Doesn’t it make you feel good when you can do something to genuinely help or show your support to them when they are facing challenges? Wouldn’t your family or friends appreciate the opportunity to help you during a time of stress and overwhelm? Sometimes difficult situations bring out the best in those that lend a hand to help. Don’t prevent others from sharing their ability to help you in a time of need. We will all encounter times in our lives when we face challenges and difficulties. Our society might be a better place if we placed more value on sincere and genuine interdependence.
- Physical Activity: Create safe, healthy ways to release the “fight” and “flight” responses that build up inside you. In our age of digital technology, we are often deprived of opportunities to physically expel cortisol from our neurological systems.“Fight” responses can be released through intense physical activity…Check out a local Crossfit gym and connect with a certified trainer. Sign-up for a kickboxing or karate class. Use a punching bag (or even a pillow) to let out your “fight”. Even gardening (digging, pulling weeds) can be the physical “heavy work” that releases cortisol from your system.“Flight” responses can burn-up cortisol with activities that recreate a “fleeing” type of response. Aerobic activities like walking, running, biking or swimming are all excellent options to add to your weekly routine.
- Social Connectivity: No…this is not referring to your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram friends and followers, but rather…Real life, real time human connections. Whether it is family, friends or your spouse or romantic partner…these connections are critical to our physical and emotional well-being. So put down the phone and enjoy a cup of coffee, a meal, a conversation, a hug, or a snuggle with the humans you care deeply about. Studies have shown that the vagus nerve responds to human connectivity and physical touch with signals that relax your parasympathetic nervous system.
- Connect with your Faith: Whether you are part of a faith-based community or not, there is incredible peace that can be found when we embrace the magnitude of life that is beyond our own human understanding. Have you ever sat at the ocean’s edge and just felt mystified by its beauty and power? The miracle of birth when you heard a newborn baby’s first cry? If you feel the weight of your worries and fears taking hold of your daily thoughts and interactions…Pray. Connect with your faith… whether with God, Jesus, the Universe, Source Energy. Incredible healing and peace can be found through developing a deeper trust and connection with your higher power.
- Deep Breathing & Mindfulness: Meditation reduces anxiety and cortisol levels. Simply taking a few deep breaths activates the Vagus nerve to trigger a signal within your nervous system to lower blood pressure and slow your heart rate. Find ways to incorporate deep breathing and mindfulness practices into your daily routine. In the midst of a fearful parenting moment… Inhale for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 4. Feel your heart rate slow. Repeat 5-10 times before you resume your activity or interaction with others. Meditation apps are available if having an audible chant or tone helps you to focus, or if you benefit from reminders to incorporate deep breathing and meditation into your day (who wouldn’t?!). Sign up for a yoga or tai chi class. Even consider a mindfulness-themed adult coloring book, since the repetitive motions of coloring have been shown to reduce anxiety in adults.
- Laughter: Laughing and having fun reduces cortisol levels. Find ways to incorporate humor into your daily routine. Learn more about Laughter Yoga & look for local offerings. Spend time with people that make you smile. Our local, national and global communities are rampant with so many stressors. Try to reduce the amount of time you spend watching the news headlines. Immerse yourself in activities and around people that inspire you. Celebrate the simple pleasures in your daily life. Who says you can’t eat dessert before dinner, or have a “Tardy Party” when you were late to an appointment?! Try to lighten up a little and put some silly back into your routine:)
- Seek Out Resources: In this age of digital technology, we have so much information readily available at our fingertips, yet it can be very overwhelming to navigate the massive amount of online information and difficult to determine credibility. Ask the professionals you know and might be working with locally to provide you with recommendations and connect you with resources that expand your search in the right direction. Schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher, or an appointment with their doctor or therapist to brainstorm additional strategies and resources that might be beneficial to your child’s and/or family’s individualized needs.
- Listen: If you are the friend or family member that is trying to be supportive to a fellow fearful parent, keep in mind that regardless of how well-intended…Unsolicited Advice can often be misinterpreted and frustrating. Instead of being received as a well-intended gesture, unsolicited advice can create an environment that causes the fearful parent to react defensively, and at times lead to further isolation. Listen Instead. Your presence and willingness to listen shows tremendous love and support. They typically do not need, nor want, you to solve their problem(s), but rather for you to be a soft place to land to express their feelings and concerns, so Ask Before Offering Advice. Maybe you have a specific suggestion or resource that might really be helpful. Help them stay focused on small triumphs, and ask them if they would like you to provide any specific suggestions, ideas or connections to resources.
Christina Connors, OTR/L received her degree in Occupational Therapy from Towson University in Baltimore, MD, and has been working as an Occupational Therapist with children and adults since 2002. Inspired by her son’s medical journey, and her desire to ease anxiety and improve age-appropriate communication for children and families facing medical challenges, Christina developed Child Inspired in collaboration with artist John Donato. Child Inspired is working to bring a blend of Art, Therapy and Functional Communication to healthcare and education settings in order to bridge the needs of children, families and healthcare & education professionals.