When it Comes to Parenting, Worry is Not Love
One aspect of any good relationship is a sense of concern for the other person’s well-being. Parenting is no exception. It’s common to want to shield your child from pain, mistakes, and heartache and to foster happiness and success. However, as your child grows, the stakes get higher, and your control over their safety and their choices diminishes drastically. To deal with this lack of control, parents may turn to worrying (unease or anxiety over real or potential problems) as a consolation.
Worrying as a parental “soothing strategy” or compensation for lack of control, sounds odd because worry is not comfortable. What is comforting about worry, however, is that it makes you feel like you are doing something when you’re actually not doing anything. When it comes to parenting, worry feels a lot better than powerlessness.
Equating worry with love poses some problems for parents and children. Parental worry and love can, in some cases, bring about drastically different results. In some cases worry can be considered the antithesis of love. Here are four ways worry and love differ significantly:
1) Worry prevents positive action / Love motivates positive action
Worry is rooted in fear. When you perceive a threat your brain goes into survival mode, also referred to as the fight, flight, or freeze response. This stress response can get in the way of the part of your brain that is responsible for analyzing and regulating your behavior. This can hinder your ability to take thoughtful action that actually helps your child’s situation, offers support, or that helps you cope with stress. Worry uses energy that could be used for other productive or supportive efforts.
Love, on the other hand, “casteth out fear” (John 4:18) and motivates positive action. God gave His Son as a sacrifice for us because he loves us (John 3:16). His love motivated him to do something on our behalf.
2) Worry demonstrates a lack of faith / Love perpetuates trust in God
The scriptures remind us to trust in the Lord and to not rely solely on our understanding (Proverbs 3:5), and also that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9). Worrying about our children may demonstrate a lack of trust in the Lord and His plan and a desire to control future outcomes. Worry is future-focused and something on which we ultimately do not have control. In parenting, faith and trust in the Lord requires letting go of all illusions of control.
3) Worry perpetuates suffering / Love perpetuates healing
Worry can be contagious and can seep into other person’s experience, especially when family members have weak emotional boundaries. I’m reminded of a Mormon mother and her single adult daughter I counseled who had enmeshed emotional boundaries. The mother, Jane, spent a lot of time worrying about her daughter Sandy’s finances and her dating prospects. Sandy sensed her mother’s worry about her financial choices and relationship status. This resulted in Sandy worrying about the impact her choices had on her mother’s fragile health. This ongoing worry circuit between Jane and Sandy did nothing to improve their relationship and maintained their suffering.
When worry is replaced with love, healing can more readily occur. As Jane and Sandy learned to calm their own worries, to trust in God and in each other, to set stronger boundaries by communicating their concerns directly, and to focus on and take action on aspects that were within their control, they were able to unplug their worry circuit and develop and deepen their relationship.
4) Worry focuses on the future / Love focuses on the present
Because of your love and dedication to your child, you may try control outcomes in situations that your kids are facing. Whether it’s worrying if your child will be prepared enough for kindergarten, or your teen’s sexual choices, your young adult daughter’s faith crisis, or worrying about the health of your 50-year-old son in light of his newly diagnosed cancer, worry is most often focused on what the future will bring. When you focus on the future, you transport yourself out of the present and into the unknown.
Replacing worry with love allows you to be in the relationship, instead of being outside of the relationship by projecting into the future. If you’re worried about your child’s first day of kindergarten, you’re not actually available for your child in the here-and-now, to teach, to connect, to prepare her for this new experience. Worrying about your teen’s sexuality does nothing to help educate her and counsel with her. Fretting about your young adult daughter stepping away from the Church does nothing to help her navigate this difficult terrain. Agonizing about your son’s cancer renders you less emotionally available to connect with him and to support him now.
Is it worry or is it love?
Worry is a waste of time and energy and not a sign of love. Love is doing what’s best for the child, not becoming consumed with future “what ifs?” One of most valuable gifts of parenting is that it forces you to let go of the illusion of having control over your child and to turn your child’s life over to them and to God.
To help you move from worry to love, consider the following questions:
What positive action can I take to support my child?
What concerns can I turn over to the Savior to lighten my burden?
What can I do to set healthier emotional boundaries with my child?
What can I do/say/think/feel to perpetuate healing in my life and in my child’s life?
How can I be more present in my relationship with my child?
Dynamic self & relationship expert Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW loves to make a difference for women. She owns Wasatch Family Therapy and regularly contributes to KSL TV's Studio 5, and her advice has been featured nationally including Wall Street Journal, Parenting, Fox News, and others. Connect on Facebook & Twitter. Her book The Burnout Cure and The Assertiveness Guide for Women are available now.