FAMILY AFFAIRS : How to Control Child-Rearing Anxiety


The anxiety, for Michael Schwartzman, was overwhelming at his infant son's bedtime.

"There came a point where we had to leave the boy in a crib to cry. . . ." The pediatrician recommended letting the child learn to calm himself and fall asleep.

The Schwartzmans were briefly comforting the child at intervals of 10 or 15 minutes, then leaving the room.

"We're sitting there for the first 15 minutes, and I'm going nuts. Then I go in and calm him down, and everything's fine, and then I leave, and he starts to cry again. During the second 15 minutes, I was just eating myself up. My wife said, 'Why don't you go for a walk?' Half an hour later, I come back, and he's still crying, and she's on the phone. So I'm fed up, and I go into the room, and I pick him up out of the crib." The baby gave a heaving cry, "which to me connotes he's just desperately miserable. Whereupon I immediately burst into tears. . . . I was overcome with such feelings of deprivation."

Schwartzman, a child psychologist, felt he was "depriving this child of any sort of happiness he would ever feel." Clearly the child was having a tough time. "But on the other hand, to visit upon him all this emotion of 'he's never going to be happy again in his life' is overboard on my part."

His experience is but one example of how anxiety can interfere with a parent's judgment. Schwartzman initially felt he was helping his son, but eventually realized that instead he was "propelling him into a situation where he wouldn't learn how to comfort himself, and he would always be reliant on a parent to move in and take care of him."

Child-rearing, says Schwartzman, author of "The Anxious Parent" (Simon and Schuster, $19.95), "is very much an intuitive process. You, as a parent, are always sensing what's happening as well as thinking about what's happening. But the more you use your senses, the more you're drawing on emotional reactions."

Anxiety about such basic issues as patterns of sleeping, eating and elimination is utterly normal, says Schwartzman, who practices in New York. But parents' concerns--often stemming from their own childhood experiences--can lead to problems between parent and child.

Schwartzman recommends a "program for change" for dealing with everyday parental anxiety. He uses the example of a 4-year-old racing to the curb on a quiet street.

--Identify what's really bothering you. Your worry may have more to do with a fear of being out of control than any actual hazard.

--Connect with your past. Was there a disturbing experience with traffic, or running from control of your parents, in your childhood?

--Get the facts. There's no traffic at the moment; there's a stop sign at the corner. A driver is parked near the intersection, but your child can be seen easily.

--Understand your child's point of view. Accept your child's need for independence; let him practice crossing on a dead-end street.

--Ground yourself. Put fears into words to make them more manageable. Balance fears with reality to stop a spiral of panic.

--Step back. Make a mental picture of what you would like to happen.

--Establish new patterns. Instead of screaming as the child nears the corner, which only frightens him, grab him and make a game of it. Whirl him around. Then cross together.

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