February 4, 2023

How to lower parental anxiety around decisions

In the Before Times, I typically saw parents who were anxious about higher-stakes parenting stressors, such as coping with the effects of divorce. But since March 2020, we parents have been reminded every day that it is our job to keep our kids safe. While we were of course aware of this pre-coronavirus, our experiences with the pandemic have amplified this feeling of responsibility, to the point where many of us are becoming overwhelmed by minor daily decisions that have nothing to do with covid-19 safety — like what body wash to use, or what to pack for school lunch, or whether to let our kid play on the tall slide.

“Parents have been told that it’s their job to protect kids from covid, yet they also see, especially during omicron, that it’s impossible to do this,” says Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, clinical psychologist and author of “The Tantrum Survival Guide.” “As a result, they’ve started focusing on kid safety decisions that they do in fact have some control over.”

All this high-stakes decision-making (on top of the unrelenting covid-related decision-making) has resulted in significant anxiety, guilt and fatigue for the parents I treat. Fortunately, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) offer coping strategies to help lower the parenting stakes and put things into perspective.

Use logic to counteract catastrophizing. Much of the worrying parents are doing about minor kid issues can be categorized as catastrophizing, which Terri Bacow, clinical psychologist and author of “Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry defines as “overestimating the probability of danger and underestimating our ability to cope.” Unfortunately, advertisers and influencers feed into our tendency to catastrophize, convincing us that a processed fruit snack or nonnatural soap will cause harm to our children.

To successfully de-catastrophize, Bacow recommends confronting our anxiety with logic. To this end, she suggests we ask ourselves two questions. First, “Is there any evidence that what I am worried about is actually going to happen?” Take that Momfluencer on Instagram talking about body wash. Is there any reputable research to back up her claims that certain kinds of soap will mess with children’s body chemistry?

The second question to ask is: “If the ‘catastrophe’ were to occur, how bad would it really be?” Bacow cites the example of a parent who worries about the processed food their kid eats at other people’s homes. Will an occasional cookie at a friend’s house really impact their health in a significant way?

It can also be helpful to think through the “catastrophe” and make a mental plan for how you’d cope with it. Say you’re reluctant to let your kid play on your neighbor’s coveted trampoline. “You need to remind yourself that of course you could handle it if your kid fell on the trampoline,” says Bacow. “It’s useful to recall similar situations that occurred in the past — like other times your child got hurt or sick — and think through how you successfully navigated those situations.”

Consider your values. Much of the decision-making parents have done during the covid era has been fear-based; we’ve let our anxiety about safety drive our choices. This makes sense when there is a clear threat, but doesn’t when there isn’t evidence that such a threat exists, as in the case with the body wash. It can be helpful, says Yael Schonbrun, clinical psychologist and author of the upcoming book “Work, Parent, Thrive,” to consider what we value, and let our values, rather than our anxiety, inform our choices. “We don’t have much control over how we feel,” notes Schonbrun. “However, we have considerable influence over what we choose to do out in the world — even when anxiety is along for the ride.”

One way to clarify your values around different kid decisions is to think about a parent you admire. Schonbrun recommends asking yourself, “How would that parent manage … in a scary situation or in a moment when their anxiety has flared up? How would I describe the way they show up, even if they might be feeling anxious?” You can also consider the type of response you would want to model for your kids. Would you want them to see you avoiding a feared situation, or approaching it?

Challenge yourself (and your kids) with exposure. So you’ve figured out that letting your kid eat sweets/bathe with regular soap/take their skateboard to the park is values-consistent for you. But how do you get yourself to actually let these activities happen when you’re still worried? “It’s best to use the principles of exposure therapy,” says Hershberg, “which involve planning to face situations you have been avoiding due to anxiety.” Practically speaking, this means making a list of values-consistent (but anxiety-provoking) situations and systematically working your way through the list. If you’re nervous about playground equipment, for example, you might make a list of different playgrounds you’re avoiding and assign yourself specific times and days to visit those playgrounds. You might start with a smaller playground and work your way up to the one with the biggest slide (a.k.a. your kid’s favorite).

Hershberg stresses that the goal of exposure is not to prove that something bad won’t happen, but rather to grow more comfortable with uncertainty. “When you’re exposing yourself to a values-consistent situation that makes you anxious — say, letting your kid go on that high jungle gym — you’re exposing yourself to the feeling of anxiety. You’re practicing not going down the rabbit hole of trying to predict what will happen but rather focusing on the fact that whatever happens, you’re a capable, loving parent with the tools to handle it.”

Mindfulness can help you cope with the anxiety you feel while completing exposures. “It can be helpful just to name how you’re feeling,” advises Shonda Moralis, clinical social worker and author of “Breathe, Mama, Breathe.” “Tell yourself, ‘Worry is here, fear is here, it’s okay — I don’t need to be driven by it. I don’t need to resist it or push it away. I just need to kindly and firmly stay the course.’ ”

Parenting will always be a high-stakes operation. Even when omicron is no longer a factor, we’ll continue to be faced with difficult decisions for our kids. If we can de-catastrophize the lower-stakes decisions, it will free up more space in our brains for grappling with the important ones.