Help for anxious parents

Illustration of a woman and her children cowering under a table with lots of safety paraphenalia.

The world is a dangerous place, but many parents are at risk of overprotecting their children.

Image: © Robert Delboy

© Robert Delboy


“Girls, could you please lock your doors? And for the last time, Liza, please roll up your window.”

I was driving my daughters to a sports competition in Boston at rush hour on a Friday last December, and we were seriously late. I had been crawling along, only to discover an accident blocking my lane. Then I’d missed the exit and taken the next one into an inner-city neighborhood I didn’t know well.

The girls did as I’d asked. Something had changed in my voice. My kids, of course, picked up on it instantly.

A couple Sundays before, the student minister at our church had shared her concern about gang-related murders of four young men with connections to the UU Urban Ministry over the past year, not far from where we were. I knew the chances of a drive-by killer or carjacker harming us, as we passed through an urban neighborhood for ten minutes, were minuscule. I also knew the biggest threats to my kids are accidents at home or in a motor vehicle. Hadn’t I just driven them past one?

They wanted to know where we were and if everything was okay. I took a deep breath. I had thought I was just giving them one of the endless everyday parental reminders—brush your teeth, use a tissue, don’t forget your homework.

But there it was: my irrational fear, my anxiety for their safety, not to mention an ugly glimpse of the culturally embedded racism and classism I try to keep stuffed away.

Searching for road signs for a clue to the name of the street we were on, I attempted to tell them the truth.

Parenting in early-twenty-first-century America is fraught with fear and anxiety, much of it understandable, much of it irrational. The media delivers a round-the-clock blitz of bad news. Our culture is quick to blame parents whenever children meet with tragedy, and no doubt many parents are negligent or abusive. Incessant media reports have perpetuated a myth, however, that all tragedies to children are preventable.

When we hear the stories, we automatically look for the parental lapse and can sometimes comfort ourselves that we would never take such a risk. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we parents know, There but for the grace of God—or sheer luck—go I.

Following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, lists of disaster-preparation and family-safety precautions proliferated. Much of the advice is sensible. What isn’t, is the notion—implicit in easy references to “preventable” tragedy—that any parent could ever be on top of every safety measure all the time. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and guilty.

The message of a new book, The Safe Child Handbook by two psychology professors, Unitarian Universalist John Dacey and coauthor Lisa Fiore, is that parents are at risk of overprotecting their children as much as underprotecting. [For a profile of Dacey, see “The Anxiety Pro.”] The more diligently parents try to protect their families, the more likely they are to suffer from anxiety—and to pass their fears on to their children. We do risk overloading our children with these anxieties—producing children afraid or unwilling to take responsibility for things they should be doing for themselves because the grownups in their lives worry so much.

Dacey and Fiore cover eight primary concerns parents have for their children, but The Safe Child Handbook’s perspective is quite unlike that of other safety lists. The authors recognize that parents walk a fine line between reasonable prudence and irrational anxiety, and they seek to help parents sort out what to do, what not to, and what to do first. Their advice is grounded in spiritual concepts Unitarian Universalists will find comfortable—opening with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer and concluding with anxiety-reduction exercises that include prayer, meditation, yoga practice, and amulets.

Looking over safety advice, such as the samples on these pages, is always a useful exercise—but it can be anxiety producing in itself, even when the tone is sympathetic and reassuring. [See link to “Parents' Top Concerns and What You Can Do” below.] I came away making some changes. Yet I couldn’t help but think, guiltily, of all the recommendations I ought to have adopted by now: make sure we have enough working flashlights at hand (probably impossible in any house with children under the age of twelve), carry a metallic blanket in my car, hold a family fire drill.

Dacey and Fiore also write that our world has become more dangerous and more fearful. I can’t help but wonder: Has raising children really become more dangerous over human history, or are we just bombarded with instantaneous reports of every piece of bad news? What would parents of other times and places, raising children in a war zone or a wilderness or in the midst of an epidemic disease, make of our fears? In our relatively comfortable culture, how many of our anxieties do we create for lack of greater threats?

The eight concerns that The Safe Child Handbook says trouble most parents did not include some of my greatest worries, such as aids and other diseases and the hatred and violence against women in our culture. One of my biggest concerns is a risk most American parents take, almost unthinkingly, every day: driving our children in a car.

Other than reminders to use child seats and belts, I’ve seen little about that enormous risk on any checklist. I suppose understandably so, because the only real remedy is to reinvent an infrastructure that drastically reduces the need for private transportation—a solution that would alleviate another of my top concerns: that global warming will wipe out the chances that my children and their children will even have a livable planet to grow up in.

I am struck by the plainly religious and spiritual underpinnings of how we parents approach the problem of how to keep our children safe. As I think about what to tell my children about strangers, terrorism, or the problems of a poor urban neighborhood, I keep getting thrown back to life’s big questions. For example:

What do I believe about good and evil? How can I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, knowing that some are malefactors who would harm those I love most?

If I live in fear, how can I be kind and giving, or teach my children to be? How much do I withdraw my family from our culture—with its fearfulness, its fascination with violence, and its denial of death? And what is my responsibility to engage with the larger culture?

How do I make peace with the inevitability that all humans suffer, including my children, and that all of us will die at a time and in a way that we cannot know?

And is there any design or meaning to what happens to any of us?

These are questions that can be answered only by taking the journey. That can be lonely, and the answers are not easy.

This winter my older daughter participated in a Coming of Age service at our church. She opened her personal credo with these words: “Unitarian Universalists are bound to search for truth. We ignore the easy answers. I am someone who likes to find the answers for myself. That is why Unitarian Universalism appeals to me.”

It wasn’t just that her statement as she sets out on her life’s journey resonated so closely with my own thinking about midlife parenting dilemmas. Seeing her surrounded—by the five other young people who have forged a close bond these past few years, each with an adult mentor, along with their youth group leaders, parents, and grandparents—I realized more powerfully the unique place this community has come to occupy in my family’s life.

Like many parents of my generation, I live and work at least an hour’s drive—if not a plane ride away—from family and lifelong friends. I enroll my children in far more programs for their enrichment than parents of the past, dropping them off with various professional strangers, who come with certificates of background checks or personal references. I became more involved in religious community after becoming a parent, looking for a religious education for my children.

Yet, if we parents have chosen such a community well, we’ve gotten so much more. Nowhere else in our life does my family have a network of adults so invested in my children, not strangers we see only once a week but people I am also in community with—socially, through committee work, in the schools, and in businesses and organizations in our town. Many of these adults have grappled with natural disaster, drug abuse, automobile accidents, and peer pressure while parenting their now-grown children. Some are still on the parenting path with me.

Together, we struggle with the questions, our feelings of anxiety, guilt, and being overwhelmed. Together, we accept that risk is a necessity in the job of launching young humans to take responsibility for themselves, that there are no absolute answers.

And together, we seek to give our children what they need most to face the dangers and uncertainties of the world: self-confidence, awareness, freedom from fear, and the ability to think for themselves.

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