Anxiety and Control: How to Break the Cycle as a Parent

by | Apr 20, 2020 | Mental Health, Parenting

Will my kids choose good friends? Will they do well academically? Will they make wise choices when I’m not around to guide them? It’s normal to consider questions like these.

However, if the answer is “no” to any of those reflective questions, anxiety can begin to rise and often a parent’s effort to control their child rises right along with it. It’s the brain’s natural coping response — when feeling internally out of control, we try to take charge of the situation to feel less anxious. This kind of reaction can become problematic, because we are not wise or helpful parents when we’re anxious and controlling. (Imagine how it would feel to have a boss at work engaging with a dip in your performance by anxiously reading your emails and checking every report!)

The Anxiety and Control Cycle

Anxiety and control are partners in crime. They rob us of joy, contentment, and peace. They rob our kids of encouragement and independence. In my parenting, and as I’ve coached parents over the years, I’ve noticed the spiralling impact of anxiety and control.

The more anxious I am about my child, the more likely I am to project a negative future for them, and the more likely they are to begin living out that projection. This makes it easy for me to rationalize doing things for them that they ought to be responsible for themselves, which builds their resentment and resistance towards me, which feeds my anxiety… and the beat goes on.

An Everyday Application of the Anxiety and Control Cycle

Nothing drives this cycle more quickly than a child or teenager who is struggling academically, is disinterested in school, and has a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.

In this case, a parent’s control/micromanaging probably includes coaxing, bribing, nagging, yelling and/or reminding. Often there are words of ownership in the problem like, “We need to get to school on time today. We are going to be late.” (We are going to be late for school? Who really owns this problem?) By the time a parent/teen gets to this place in the relationship there is most likely much built up resentment. Extracting oneself from this pattern is neither easy nor painless, but it is possible — and necessary for the long-term health and well-being of your child.

How to Stop Anxiety and Control from Taking Over

Picture the cycle above as a traffic roundabout on which you are travelling faster and faster. Then imagine the exits that you can take with a little thoughtfulness.

1. Bring anxiety to God, not to your child. 

When parents need their child to act a certain way, they are giving control of their own sense of value and identity to their kids. Change starts with honest introspection: when my child has a good day and gets a decent grade do I feel relieved, happy, and more confident about my parenting? When my child barely rolls out of bed, forgets his backpack, and flunks a test, am I discouraged, anxious, and likely to lose it about the test? This power over parents’ moods is way too much responsibility for kids to handle. 

2. Consider, “How can I be OK, even if my teen continues to struggle?” 

A helpful phrase to remember: “My child is not my report card. Jesus is my report card.” And by the way, Jesus loves both of you. I Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you…” and for your child! How can you trust that more deeply?

3. Focus on the truth about your teen. 

Ask God how he sees your child. Does God see her as a messed up, hopeless cause? The answer is probably vastly different than your current view. Repeating truth-filled phrases changes our beliefs, which in turn, changes our thinking, feelings, and actions. Here’s one you could try: “If my child fails this class he will grow and learn and have an opportunity to do better next time. I will have an opportunity to communicate true, unconditional love.”

4. Empower respectful honesty when you clash. 

One mom of teens was a self-described micromanager, but she admitted it and told her kids that she was working to let them be responsible for their lives. She also equipped them with a simple, respectful script to confront her when she slipped into old habits: “Mom, I’m feeling micromanaged right now.” This prompted her to do a “do-over” in the interaction and helped her kids to take responsibility in their lives.

5. Encourage your teen! 

Make an extra effort to connect in ways your child enjoys, in spite of difficult behaviour. Find things to affirm. What classes is your child doing well in? What are they good at? When do you see them excited about something?

6. Be a great resource for your teen, without taking over their responsibilities. 

This takes much skill and communication. Parents tend to go to the extreme in responding to this kind of suggestion: “FINE. I’m not going to do this for you anymore. I’ve done my best, but you obviously don’t want my help!!!” That’s not what your child needs, either. Ask questions like:

  • What do you need from me to be successful in getting out of bed?
  • How would you like to communicate with me about grades/attendance? (As a parent coach, I generally recommend a once-per-week check in that is for information purposes for the parent. Not a weekly lecture time!)

This dynamic of anxiety, control, and resentment is a great example of how well-intentioned parents discourage their kids and make it harder for them to be ready for life. If this describes you, there’s plenty of hope. You can exit the crazy cycle, and communicate your love for and confidence in your kids. As you do, you’ll strengthen your relationship, build true respect and influence with them, and you just might see them become more responsible!

My Response:

  • Where do I most need to exit on one of the suggested off-ramps?
  • How could I remind myself of it when my kids are struggling?
Used with permission. Originally published at connectedfamilies.org.