By Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
A friend once told me about a new mom who called her pediatrician about 50 times during the first two weeks of her son's life. Finally the pediatrician called the mom into her office and said, "Listen, you have become a parent. You have opened yourself up to a lifetime of worry. You have to pace yourself."
As a world-class worrier myself, born into a family of champion worriers, I often wonder what the opposite of worry might be. For us parents, I don't think that the opposite of worry is calm serenity. I haven't met too many calm and serene parents (unless they aren't paying attention!). Perhaps, though, we don't have to worry all the time about everything. Perhaps the opposite of worry is trust - trust in development, trust in your parenting, trust in the power of friendship, and trust in children's resilience.
Every spring, I get frantic phone calls from parents who are desperately worried because their 4-year-old children aren't ready for kindergarten. Of course, they're not! If a short phone call doesn't reassure them, I will meet the family, have a few sessions of play therapy with the child, and lo and behold, in September they are usually ready for kindergarten. I am happy to take all the credit, but the real work was done by development (don't tell anyone!).
Of course, it's hard to trust the power of development if your sister's toddler can count to 20 while yours is happier blowing bubbles in the tub, but don't worry. Development happens. On the other hand, if your child seems to be more than one developmental stage behind his or her peers, or if there seems to be no maturing happening for several months, then it's time to see if there is something more serious to worry about.
Trust Your Early Parenting
As children enter the world of peers, many parents panic about losing their influence. How could my sweet child come home with all that bathroom talk, those bad manners, that sassy attitude, or that burning desire for the latest toy or video game? (It's funny, isn't it, that it is always other people's kids who start these trends and influence our innocent children.)
At these times, it is important to take a deep breath - maybe a few deep breaths - and remember to trust in the power of your early parenting. The attachment bonds we established might be strained by the pull of peers and the lure of stuff we can't stand (like toy guns, perhaps, or super-girly dolls). But those bonds don't crack. In fact, the best predictor of success in childhood - success in school, with friends, in emotional well-being - is a secure attachment in infancy. So remember the times you gazed lovingly into each other's eyes, and trust that the headaches of later childhood will be fond or funny memories one day.
If your child didn't have a secure and confident early childhood, then it isn't too late, but you may need some help maintaining the link of connection during those later years when peers and media try to pull them away from you.
Kids Are Resilient
Friendships and other peer relationships are areas where it's very hard for parents to trust instead of worry. I wish I had a nickel for every parent I know who has been terribly upset because their child didn't have a best friend, or had a fight with their friend, or was teased at school, or wasn't put in the right classroom - the list goes on and on.
As a friend of mine put it, "You have to let things happen as they happen, without overreacting, but you also have to be there, ready to listen." This friend wasn't always so philosophical about her son's social life - she is, like me, a champion worrier. But she worked at it, realizing that she had to listen to her son without being so empathic that she was flooded with her own painful emotions.
A few years ago, she was beside herself when her son wasn't invited to a birthday party. She focused so much on the pain - her son's pain of exclusion and her own remembered pain from middle school - that she forgot to trust in her son's resilience, his ability to bounce back even after a big upset.
My friend nurtured her trust in resilience by recognizing that a large part of her emotional reaction to her son's social pain was from her own difficult childhood.
"That's often the source of the intensity of my emotional reaction," she says. "So if I just respond out of that feeling, it's usually not very helpful."
At the same time, she makes sure not to go too far in the other direction, dismissing her son's pain as trivial. She listens, and sympathizes, but remembers in her heart that "this too shall pass," even if it truly seems devastating to him at the moment.
Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychologist who specializes in children's play and play therapy, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Playful Parenting(Ballantine Books, 2001).