PARENTING: THE PERFECT OUTLET FOR ANXIETY – Book excerpt from When Worry Works by Dana Dorfman, PhD

The very nature of parenting is centered on preparing our child for the future, a future that is uncertain and impossible to control. There are few instinctual feelings so primal and overpowering as the need to keep our kids safe. Given their vulnerability and extreme dependency, we are driven by a biological need to protect them from harm, both emotionally and physically. It’s fertile ground for our anxieties to take root and grow.

Parental anxiety adds a new overlay to our preexisting protective brain system. If our kids are not safe, this causes us extreme emotional distress, so our anxiety systems double down. By protecting our kids, we also protect ourselves from distress. And when we are in a highly protective mode, anxiety is heightened. Parenting literally alters the brain, making it permanently more protective and engendering primal instincts. When we become parents, no matter how experienced or pre- pared we are, anxiety, in all its protective glory, emerges in some form or another. When our kids are little, we strap them into their car seats to ensure their physical safety, and we child-proof our medicine cabinets and cleaning supplies. In doing this we are not only keeping them safe but also managing our own anxiety, preventing us from “needing to worry.” Each time our children progress to a new stage, new protective instincts arise. The dangers facing a newborn are very different from the dangers facing a teenager.

By the time we become parents, our brains have already established ways of managing our anxiety systems (we’ll delve into this more later, in part II)—so much so that they’ve become second nature. The way we manage our anxieties becomes as unnoticeable to us as the anxieties themselves. A lot of us don’t even think we have anxiety. That’s the thing weak people have; we’re just goal-oriented! Like it or not, we all have some form of anxiety, as well as long-practiced ways of managing it. Naturally, these are methods we use as we parent our kids.


Excerpted from the book When Worry Works: How to Harness Your Parenting Stress and Guide Your Teen to Success by Dana Dorfman, PhD. Used by permission of the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.


Dr. Dana Dorfman, MSW, PhD, is a New York City based psychotherapist with 30 years experience treating adolescents and parents in her private practice, schools, and agency settings. As a passionate advocate of adolescent mental health, she is a lecturer and consultant for parenting centers, schools, and corporations.  Dr. Dorfman is regularly interviewed and quoted in the media on mental health topics and was the co-host of a parenting podcast, 2 Moms on the Couch.  Dr. Dorfman resides in NYC with her husband, her teenage daughter and son, and their beloved dog, Winnicott.

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