Q: As a general rule, I manage my parenting anxiety by not reading parenting books. It’s too much contradictory information, and I get nuts about it. I’ve found that following my instincts works better for me. But I do feel like I need some guidance on what I should be doing with my toddler to prevent lifelong damage and get on course to raise a good kid. Any thoughts on how to manage this push-pull?
A: We have never had so much information at our fingertips in the history of parenting: data, studies, websites, books, podcasts, articles, blogs, columns, (classes, therapists, coaches. There is a never-ending list of ways that parents can get advice and instruction and information. Yet we have never been more anxious and insecure about our roles. Are we good enough? Are we providing the best opportunities for our children? Are we too lenient? Too strict? Too absent? Too present? For every question we have, we can sit at the computer and search and search, giving our brain unending fodder for worry and uncertainty. For every study we find, another will disprove it.
I remember being pregnant with my second and feeling amazed by the information available to pregnant women. Breast-feeding, swaddling, diapers, sleep classes, eating — you name it, and the information was out there. I had done all of those things (and more) while pregnant with my first, and guess what? I barely needed any of the information. Life has a way of throwing curveballs and changing up the game pretty quickly.
But I was amazed at how women are handed babies and almost no one (save a couple of great pediatricians) talks to parents about their kids’ development. When you are concerned about your 2-year-old’s tantrums, you usually get a “Yup, that’s normal.” Why is it normal? What role do tantrums serve for 2-year-olds? (And yes, they serve a purpose.) Why do 3-year-olds say “no” so much? Why do young children lie? Why do bedtimes become so fraught after the child had been going to sleep normally?
There are reasons behind behaviors. Yet parents who are browbeaten concerning the birthing process aren’t told the basic developmental stages of children.
The reason is both complicated and simple. Pregnancy and birth have been made into billion-dollar industries, but toddlers? Preschoolers? Elementary-aged children? Outside toys and technology, consumer culture tends to steer clear. And who can blame them? Differing opinions on parenting techniques, disorders, disabilities and more (just to name a few issues) keep basic information from reaching parents, and we don’t ask for help until we feel like we’re dealing with a crisis. It’s natural to not seek help until you have a problem, but even a basic understanding of child development would help parents so much. And if I can grasp it, then anyone can.
I am not going to recommend that you read much about parenting. Is that because what’s out there is bad or good? No. I recommend staying away from reading too many books, because your searches are feeding your anxiety rather than your thirst for knowledge. I mean, “lifelong damage”? Whoa. That’s heavy stuff. How powerful do you think you are as a parent? Life will dole out its own misery that will have nothing to do with you. The only way to prevent misery is to not live, and that is not our desired option.
1. Get to the root of your anxiety. Having worries as a parent is normal, but if you feel kidnapped by your anxiety, you need help. Parenting has a way of unearthing our emotional issues, and a good therapist will help you unpack them. There are effective and easy tools to help you manage anxiety, so be brave and reach out.
2. Find parenting friends who don’t stoke your worry. Anxious parents tend to surround themselves with other anxious parents, and everyone stays in a worry loop. Consciously be with people who help you to feel relaxed, not amped. Finding a community can make a huge difference in your anxiety levels and how you understand your child.
3. Have one friend with children older than yours. I have a friend whose children are about four years older than mine, and I cannot tell you how many times I have called with a “Is this normal?” parenting question.
4. Have a small (and I mean small) library of parenting books in your home. I like basic development books (look around and see what speaks to you) and books about kids’ developing bodies (I like the “Care and Keeping of You” series, which also has a book for boys.) I like Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson books (“The Whole Brain Child” and “No-Drama Discipline”), as well as Deborah MacNamara’s “Rest, Play, Grow” for understanding preschoolers. For a class on child development, look no further than the Neufeld Institute. It’s online, affordable, science-backed and thorough.
5. Although it’s good that you know that your instinct is powerful, I want you to reframe it as your intuition. When I hear “instinct,” I think of our reptilian brains, keeping us in fear and survival mode. Your intuition is a bit deeper; it goes past fear. It has some measure to it. It is more “in the gut.”
Finally, don’t confuse not knowing what to do with failure. There is no way you can know what to do all the time. No matter how many books you read, you will make mistakes and lose your way. This is a guarantee. Forgive yourself, ask yourself what you need and keep moving forward. Your confidence will grow, and you will find your way. As all of us did, and do. Good luck.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education, a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.