As someone who struggles with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and who had severe Postpartum Anxiety (PPA), I get a lot of questions about parenting anxiety. Specifically, what is parental anxiety? And how does it differ from general parenting stress? It makes sense–after all, I have abundant experience dealing with anxiety in general, and anxiety in motherhood.
In this article, we’ll discuss typical parenting anxiety, the stress most parents feel navigating their new roles, and the worry that comes with parenting. We’ll talk through tips for managing parenting stress on your own, as well as how to know if/when you should seek professional help. For a printable list of tips to destress, download our 10 Tips for (Free) Self Care!
Taking Note of Your Parenting Anxiety
The first step in overcoming parenting stress is to recognize when you experience it. Be vigilant, and keep an eye out for the following signs:
- Tension in your shoulders, neck, jaw, hips, or legs
- Tightening of muscles wherever you hold stress
- Butterflies in your stomach from worry
- Racing thoughts
- Inability to sit still
- Shortness of temper
These signs can cue you into the fact that you’re feeling anxious, and knowing that you’re experiencing parenting anxiety can help you combat it.
For one thing, you’re less likely to take your parenting stress out on your family if you recognize that you’re experiencing it; they’re not causing it (or at least not intentionally!)
Plus, once you know you’re dealing with parenting stress, you can practice minimizing it!
Sounds good, right??
How Can I Reduce Parental Stress?
There are plenty of things you can do to help manage parenting stress by yourself. A certain level of stress is normal in parenting, so feeling a level of anxiety you can easily function through does not usually indicate a larger problem.
Let’s face it. Dealing with anxiety as a mom is really common.
These tips can help you manage parenting anxiety on your own. I’ve divided the advice into 2 categories:
- Daily tips for reducing parenting stress and anxiety
- Suggestions for shifting the narrative in your anxious brain
These suggestions work differently. The first helps you manage in the moment. The second helps you work actively to decrease your stress over time.
Reducing Parenting Stress and Anxiety
Because stress is a normal part of life, understanding basic stress-reduction tips can help you cope with whatever level of parenting anxiety you’re experiencing. The following tips are designed to give you the tools to manage that daily struggle:
- Talk about your parenting anxiety. To whomever–your partner, parents, friends, online support network, pastor, whomever. Just make sure you’re talking to someone who will lift you up, not pull you down.
- Learn the real risks. Have a 2-year-old? Research the most common types of serious injury to a 2-year-old and do what you can to minimize the risks around your home and places you frequent. Knowing what you have an actual reason to worry about can help ease your parenting anxiety about other things.
- STOP RESEARCHING once you learn those risks. Anxiety likes to detach from one idea and move to another. So, if you learn that your child’s biggest risks include falling from monkey bars and drowning, take that information and DO NOT READ ANOTHER WORD ABOUT A CHILD INJURED IN THOSE WAYS!
- Make a plan. Now that you know what to worry about, make a plan. How can you effectively avoid these scenarios? Perhaps you only let your child do monkey bars with a spotter.
Maybe you don’t allow your child to visit friends who have pools in their yards unless you’re present. Or, perhaps ask the parents what protective mechanisms they’ve put in place before allowing your child to go play at that house.
Once you’ve created a plan for all the action you can take, there’s nothing more you can do. So I repeat, STOP READING ABOUT IT! You WILL make your anxiety worse if you continue reading terrifying stories.
- Practice self care. The better overall condition of your mind, the better shape you’ll be in to manage your parenting anxiety. For more on practicing self care, check out our article on self care for moms.
- Stay in the present. This is hard for someone who always imagines the future and the worst. A few tips for staying in the present:
- Self-talk: Literally say to yourself, “Thank you, mind, for being concerned about my family’s well-being. But this fear of a potential future does me no good, so I’m going to release this thought now.” The thought will come back. When it does, repeat this language.
- Clap. You heard me. Clap. Snap yourself out of it. In Girl, Stop Apologizing, Rachel Hollis talks about clapping as a way to instantly change your mood. It can also instantly bring your mind back to the present.
- Practice mindfulness. Yoga, meditation, breathing. I love the Calm app for this, but there are tons of others out there.
- Give your fear a name. I like to use book titles, writer that I am. Movie titles are good too. So if I’m worried about my child falling from the monkey bars (which I’m not because he isn’t old enough for them yet), I might call that fear “monkey business.” Once I have a name, I can talk directly to the fear in a way that doesn’t involve my parenting anxiety. “Oh, hey, monkey business. Back again I see. I already have a plan in place for you, so I’m going to move on to “the breakfast club” now. See you soon!”
- Accept mistakes. We’re all human. We all make them.
When your child spills red juice all over your couch and carpet, know they didn’t mean to. Worrying about the cleanup enhances your anxiety AND your child’s. If you get mad, the child will get upset, and everyone’s stress level will increase. Tell them it’s okay to make mistakes and have them help clean up. Everyone learns a lesson, and everyone stays calm.
Maybe your little one falls and gets hurt because you weren’t paying attention. Tell them you’re sorry, it’ll be okay, and do what you can to make it better. But do not allow the narrative of self-guilt in. We all get distracted. See #6a (self-talk) for help avoiding that narrative of guilt.
Trying to laugh at yourself and your child (not if it will upset them!) for a mistake can really lighten the mood. Mistakes happen. Let’s move on.
Changing How Your Brain Responds to Parenting Anxiety
Your response to your own anxiety has a strong impact on how that anxiety changes in the future. In other words, if you respond in a way that tells your subconscious mind that your worry is valid, you’re going to worry about that issue more.
You’re telling your brain, “Yes! This is a FIRE!” Even if your level of parenting anxiety is relatively typical, this cycle can lead to more severe anxiety, the type you may need to seek treatment for.
But if your behavior and self-talk tell your subconscious, “Nope. No fire here. Thanks for the warning, though,” then your subconscious mind will deprioritize that worry. The parenting anxiety won’t be as strong next time.
The tips below, adapted from my article “On Parenting and Anxiety” from the Atlanta Area Moms Blog, can help break that negative cycle.
(Note: You cannot rationalize with the subconscious mind. So saying, “It’s silly that I’m worried about X” does not make you worry less about X. Your response to that worry, however, can help you feel less stress about X in the future. That’s what these tips are designed to do.)
- Be an active observer of your own emotions. Imagine you’re watching yourself from the outside, Ghost of Christmas Past style. See yourself act and react without trying to impact your action.
- Remember: it’s okay to feel this way. Negative self-talk, for example: “I’m being ridiculous.” “This is irrational.” “I haven’t experienced anything severe enough to warrant these feelings.” Thoughts like these perpetuate the cycle of anxiety.
- Shift your narrative. Instead of berating yourself for feeling the way you do, practice gratitude. For example, try saying something like, “Thank you, mind, for trying to protect me from all that could go wrong. These strong emotional responses are part of what has allowed our species to survive, and I’m glad to be a part of that process.”
- Take effective action, and recognize that what’s effective for you will not be for everyone. For example, I worried about Jack getting the flu, so he got a flu shot. That’s not every parents’ choice, but it was mine. We added a probiotic and Vitamin C to his daily regimen. I changed my clothes before I held him when I got home from work. I did all I felt like I could without impacting my own emotional wellbeing.
- Observe when action is damaging to your own mental state, and try not to let your worry push you into negative action. For example, part of me wanted to sequester Jack to the house during flu season. But that’s not practical for our lives. It may be for some, but not for ours. By doing so, I would have been giving into the “flight” response from “fight or flight.” This action would have reiterated to my brain it was correct to panic at the idea of Jack getting the flu. So, I still took him out, just with reasonable precautions.
- Use your narrative to avoid the downward spiral of negative thoughts. Say something to yourself like, “I appreciate you, mind, for trying to protect me. I’ve done all the things that I can do to effectively help prevent my son from getting the flu. The other measures I can take would be detrimental to my mental state, and to Jack’s way of life. I’m going to move on from this worry now. I know you’ll come back, and that’s okay. I’ll chat with you again when you do.”
- Trust and foster a supportive community. Whether your community is at work, home, your child’s school, church, or online, fostering connections with others reminds us that we’re not alone. Anxiety is universal. There’s no need to struggle through it as if it weren’t.
- JUST SAY NO to guilt. Guilt makes us question our choices and often leads to parenting anxiety. And if our children are anxious, we often feel guilty that we may have perpetuated it. Just say no: “I see you’re here again, guilt, but I didn’t invite you. See you next time.”
To learn more on managing parenting guilt, read our article “It’s Time We Get to the Bottom of Mom Guilt,” which talks about how we can shift our feelings of guilt into productive emotions.
When To Seek Professional Help for Parenting Anxiety
Sometimes, the anxiety you experience as a parent may be a sign of something greater. As a new parent, you may experience postpartum depression and anxiety anxiety. Learn the symptoms and how to get treatment.
Did you know that it’s possible to experience postpartum anxiety for years after a child is born, and that onset may not be immediately after birth?
In fact, it’s especially common for women to begin battling postpartum depression and anxiety when they stop breastfeeding.
This is due to a sudden decrease in the hormones prolactin (for milk-making) and oxytocin (used during breastfeeding for let-down, but this is also the feel-good hormone, which you might really miss.) Many women’s bodies do not respond well to this sudden change, which can cause postpartum mental health disorders to develop despite not having a newborn.
Even if your anxiety isn’t due to postpartum hormones, it could signal a larger anxiety or panic disorder that requires diagnosis and treatment (from a different kind of doctor than me!).
How Do I Know If I Need Professional Help for My Parenting Anxiety?
If you’ve given birth within the past year or recently, use the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) to determine if you should see a doctor. It’s for depression, but it definitely caught my anxiety, too.
As the list linked above shows, physical symptoms often make the difference. In addition to parenting stress, are you experiencing things like a pounding heart, dizziness, hot flashes, difficulty breathing, insomnia, upset stomach? Any of these symptoms, especially when associated with stress, can be a sign of anxiety.
My nonmedical opinion: When in doubt, seek help! If you’re wondering if you’d benefit from professional help, then you probably would.
How Do I Find Professional Help?
If you’ve given birth within the past year or recently, contact Postpartum Support International (PSI). They have abundant resources and will help you find a healthcare provider in your area.
Contact the PSI 24-Hour Helpline at 1-800-944-4773 or TEXT 503-894-9453!
Not concerned that your anxiety is related to postpartum? Talk to your general practitioner, or even better find a qualified counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist.
Ask your friends and family for recommendations. if you’re uncomfortable asking, go online. If you don’t think you want or need medication, check out the Psychologist Locator from the American Psychological Association or Find a Psychologist. If you think medication may be necessary, find a psychiatrist through the American Psychiatric Association.
Can You Pass Anxiety to Your Child?
Because I talk so openly about my experience with anxiety, people often ask, “Is anxiety a hereditary or a learned behavior?” In some cases, they’re wondering if my anxiety is “real” or if I’m just creating it (it’s real; I’m not). Some people who ask this question are worried about whether they can pass anxiety to their children.
The answer here is that usual frustrating answer of “It’s complicated.” Many of us are born predisposed to anxiety, just like many people are born with a greater likelihood of depression. That said, there are learned behaviors that can increase anxiety, and growing up in a home with anxious parents does increase your chance of developing anxiety yourself.
The question is, what’s the chicken and what’s the egg? In other words, if parent and child both have an anxiety disorder, did the child inherit the parents’ chemical imbalance, or did they learn anxious behaviors from the parents?
Again, it’s complicated. Certainly, the chemical predisposition to anxiety is hereditary. But if we express our fears aloud, our children will pick up on them (though they may or may not adopt those fears themselves.)
Similarly, they see how their parents manage their anxiety, and management is key. For more information about how to avoid passing on anxiety to your children, we recommend this article from the Child Mind Institute.
If a parent manages anxiety in a way that perpetuates it, then it would follow that the child may be more likely to develop anxiety themselves. This is why coping and management strategies for parental anxiety–including seeking help and support–is so important.
We hope these tips on reducing stress and re-routing your daily anxiety narrative have been helpful! Again, if you feel more than a normal amount of parenting anxiety, reach out to family, friends, and/or your doctor or therapist!
There is no reason to suffer alone–that’s not good for you or your beautiful children.
Last but definitely not least, talk to us! We’d love to hear from you!
What strategies for managing parenting stress have helped you?
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.