Anxious Parents Helped by “World’s Worst Mom”

Lenore Skenazy was called the world’s worst mom when she let her 9-year-old son figure out how to get home on New York subway alone. After the swarm of criticism she wrote a book, Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Kids (Without Going Nuts with Worry) (link is external).

She was confident in her child’s ability to manage his way home without her and he was overjoyed. Now she has a television show to help mothers get over their fears of letting their children act like children.

Why are many parents so highly anxious about their children that they overcontrol? Here are several reasons.

Cause 1: Media fear promotion

Crime draws viewers and pervades television local news and shows. Even though the crime rate is similar to decades ago (1970) when children were allowed to play unsupervised outside for hours on end, because of a greater focus on crime in the media parents today often perceive their neighborhood to be much less safe than in the past. (Note: it is true however that the population has increased from  203,235,298  in 1970 to 316,128,839  in 2013 and so though the per capita incidence of crime is about the same the number of violent crimes overall has increased: 738,820 violent crimes in 1970 and 1,163,146 in 2013.)

Remedy: Avoid watching programs that raise fears of crime and belief that violence is pervasive.

Cause 2: Learning

When I was 7 years old, I was living in Guadalajara Mexico and staying with a couple of sister friends older and younger than me. They warned me to keep hair over my ear at night or a fly would enter and lay an egg. I adopted that habit—for 20 years! until I finally paused and thought about why I felt the need to cover my ear with hair every night. After reflection, tracing back to the original incident, I stopped.

Remedy: Self-reflect on your odd behaviors. Check with others who live life well about the validity of these beliefs and behaviors.

Cause 3: Toxic stress

We have epidemics of mental health disorders, including depression among all ages in the USA. These come about from early life stress (Cialdi et al., 2000, 2003). They can also be passed from one generation to another not only through parenting practices but epigenetic inheritance (Champagne & Meaney, 2007; Francis et al., 1999)—if your parent or grandparent was toxically stressed at a critical time, it could have changed their gene expression for controlling anxiety and you inherited it.

When we are easily stressed, it puts us into the stress response, which shifts our focus to getting back to feeling safe again, whatever it takes. Parents who control their children’s behavior out of fear are trying to feel safe again. Without reflection, this represents a safety ethical mindset where parents feel it their duty to protect their child at all costs (to freedom, autonomy, creativity, happiness) even though they are projecting their fears onto the situation.

With toxic early stress, a child’s mind can be biased towards a safety ethic, self-protective types of social relations—controlling with aggressive action or withdrawal. You can see it in yourself when you are triggered into wanting to be dominant or wanting to be taken care of (submission). Both ways can help calm you down because they provide a sense of greater control over events. (The alternative is going with the flow, trusting relational attunement, see more here.)

Remedy: Therapy (self or with mentor)

Therapy offers a time for reflection about our habits. 1. Are they realistic, logical, reasonable? 2. If not, what is making me afraid? 3. How do I re-envision and re-vamp my view of the world, my detrimental habits?

Skenazy offers the first step to parents—by asking them questions and trying to reframe their thinking. Sometimes this is enough, as with my ear covering.

The second step, reflection on personal history, often takes some bravery in looking back to the conditioning that got us paralyzed or taking up strange behaviors.

Sometimes, as Skenazy does, you can skip step two and just go to changing behavior (circling back later if needed).

The third step, changing behavior, may take coaching and repeated practice, where you make slight shifts in behavior and get used to them. For example, Schwartz and Begley (2003) describe the approach with obsessive-compulsive disorder (e.g., compulsive hand washing or lock checking). In this case an alternative pleasurable behavior is inserted before the compulsive behavior, like gardening. Extending the time for the intervening behavior, from a few seconds to minutes to hours, can over time reduce the drive to compulsion, altering the brain’s misfiring. Mindfulness and deep breathing can facilitate new behaviors and decrease stress.

For more on these ideas, see my book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom.

References (link is external)

Emotional Intelligence Needs a Moral Rudder (link is external)

Caldji, C. Francis, D., Sharma, S., Plotsky, P.M., & Meaney, M.J. (2000). The effects of early rearing environment on the development of GABAA and central benzodiazepine receptor levels and novelty-induced fearfulness in the rat. Neuropsychopharmacology, March, 219-229.

Caldji, C., Diorio, J., & Meaney, M.J. (2003). Variations in maternal care alter GABA(A) receptor subunit expression in brain regions associated with fear. Neuropsychopharmacology, 28, 1950-1959.

Champagne, F., & Meaney, M.J. (2007). Transgenerational effects of social environment on variations in maternal care and behavioral response to novelty. Behavioral Neuroscience 121, 1353-1363.

Francis, D., Diorio, J., Liu, D., & Meaney, M.J. (1999). Nongenomic transmission across generations of maternal behavior and stress responses in the rat. Science, 286, 1155-1158.

Jeffrey M. Schwartz & Sharon Begley (2003). The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (link is external). New York: Reganbooks.

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