Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an independent practice in Sausalito, California. Since 1981, his work has focused ...Read More
If you missed Part One of the series, you can read that here.
It’s winter and parents of college bound children are either in the throws of anticipating college tours or college acceptances, or in the middle of their child’s first year of college. Each of these situations can be fraught with intense anxiety, for both students and their parents. If parents want to help their children manage anxiety better, the parent needs to better manage their own anxiety.
This may seem like a bizarre suggestion, but recent neuroscience findings suggest that our brains are wired to communicate in such a way, that when we are feeling anxious, we can contagiously convey that feeling to others, especially those with whom we have a close relationship. That means kids convey their anxiety to parents, and visa versa, parents convey anxiety to their children. Think of it like the flu – contagious especially between people who are in close proximity. One way to reduce the anxiety between parent and child is for one person to break the cycle of emotion contagion. Since the parent is the adult, they are usually in a better position to stop the back and forth of anxiety.
How can parents better manage their anxiety? By talking about it with each other or other supportive adult friends or family. When we are worried, but not either aware of it or don’t have a place to get it out, we tend to show our worry to others. We show it in our facial expressions, tone of voice, words we choose and gestures we make with our hands and arms. And because kids are so good at recognizing angst in us, they are likely to notice it in a heartbeat when we approach them. Recently, when I came home after a particularly difficult day of clients, I walked in the door and my wife asked me, “What’s going on?” I said, “Nothing is going on.” She said, “Yes there is.” After many years of marriage, we have learned to not let this turn into a conflict. Instead, we use these interactions as an opportunity to figure out what’s going on with us. When I took a few minutes to feel what was going on with me, I quickly realized that I was feeling frustrated about work. But if she hadn’t said anything to me, I might have just been in a grumpy mood, which could have ruined our dinner. She felt immediately what I was completely oblivious to.
Recognizing and talking about concerns and anxieties with other adults can help parents to approach their teenager with a bit more calm in their demeanor. It also allows parents to separate real problems from imaginary ones or just plain worries that we don’t have any control over. Talking also helps us plan what to say, and what not to say, to our children when we approach them. It’s ironic, but the more aware we are of our own anxiety, the better we can control it, and the less likely it will be contagiously transferred to our children. When the parent is calm, genuinely calm, not just pretending, the angst-ridden teenager is going to be less reactive. This is no guarantee that they won’t get prickly, but it reduces that contagion effect and the parent will be in a more unruffled place to respond effectively to their freaked out kid.
Parents who have consulted with other adults are in a better position to remain calm throughout an anxious discussion with a child, but such discussions can still be difficult to tolerate for all participants. Parents need to give themselves permission to walk away from a conflict that is going nowhere or escalating to a fever pitch. Most discussions can be put off to a time when moods are more subdued. Many destructive arguments with teenagers could have been avoided if parents were willing to walk away and give their child the time and space to calm down. Sometimes parents are more focused on getting their point across, getting their child to see the error of their ways, than reducing their own anger and anxiety so they can better problem-solve. In fact, by showing you know when to stop and walk away, you are being a good role model on how to manage intense emotion. This is something your child will need to learn when things get difficult with peers in college, and beyond.
Another thing to remember is that each parent may have more calm with regard certain topics than other. Because this is true, it may be useful for parents to alternate taking the lead in discussions when one parent is more easily able to tolerate a given situation than the other. For example, I recently saw a couple whose first-born daughter is now a college freshman at a local state university. The mother was more anxious about her daughter doing well academically, whereas the father was more anxious about his daughter’s relationships with boys. They helped each other out with this difference. When the mother was getting too worried, she would talk about it with her husband and he would be able to step in and talk with his daughter about their concerns. Likewise, the mother was able to talk with her daughter more calmly about their concerns about her socializing a bit too much. This couple helped each other deal with their daughter so that they would transfer the least amount of parental anxiety her way. With more and more single parent households, this is not always easy. But if a parent is having difficulty managing his or her anxiety in approaching their college student, sometimes it helps to enlist another relative or family friend to reduce the chance of emotion-contagion.
Of course, sometimes emotion contagion is inevitable. And when that happens, the best thing the parent can do is stop the conversation and give themselves and their student, a chance to calm down and re-approach at a later date.