Sarah* was a competent health professional. She had years of experience assisting families with their children’s development. In her work life, Sarah was steady and confident. At home with her 3 young children it was a different picture. Sarah was gripped by anxiety about her 6 month old child. She was fearful that her son might have a disability and as a result was constantly monitoring, looking for indications of such a problem. Any number of things became evidence of her fear: when he didn’t sustain eye contact, when he was slow to smile, when he seemed to prefer rolling in one direction, when he was restless….and so the list of possible signs expanded. Sarah had begun to do particular therapy exercises with her son to address any possible delays in his development.
Chatting to Sarah revealed that she previously had similar anxieties with her other children during their first year of life but this current period of anxiety was much more intense and influencing her mood and capacity to maintain her life tasks. I asked Sarah what she could see were the effects of looking for signs of something wrong with her baby boy. She acknowledged that looking for problems wasn’t reassuring her; rather it was providing endless possible confirmations for her worries. As she asked herself “What if there is a disability that needs early intervention?” she was creating a kind of bottomless pit for her anxiety. Sarah had good insight that her monitoring and ‘therapising’ her son was preventing her engaging in simple play and enjoying getting to know her son’s particular preferences and emerging personality. She could also appreciate that. even in the unlikely situation that her child had a factual disability, her anxious parent- child interactions would not be helpful. We discussed how a parent can contribute to an escalating worry cycle where an infant responds reactively to the mother’s intrusive monitoring, which in turn confirms the mother’s worry and increases her fussing around her child, who in turn responds with restless behaviour…and on it goes.
I explored with Sarah what was going on in her important relationships and learned that she had withdrawn from her extended family supports and wasn’t keeping regular conversational connection with her husband. Her elderly father had died a couple of years ago. She had perceived that her mother’s grief meant that she wouldn’t want the load of assisting with her grandchildren. It was likely that this important loss and change in her extended family had added to Sarah’s anxieties with her third child. Certainly Sarah’s growing isolation appeared to be increasing the degree of her fears and her focus on her infant son.
Sarah knew it would be extremely challenging to reduce her worry for her child. There was something quite compelling and steadying for her when she perceived herself as helping her son. She felt stronger as a mother even though she was also frustrated by the effects of her increasing anxiety. Over time Sarah made a range of efforts to break this problematic worry cycle – making herself the priority project, not her child. This involved:
- Noticing when her thinking was in the ‘WHAT IF?’ category instead of a ‘WHAT NOW?’ factual platform.
- Noticing how much she was making a ‘fixing’ project out of her child – a project that could become something of a self-fulfilling projection.
- Working to shift this project back to herself – her self-care, her relating to her husband, her initiating more contact and garnering support from her mother, siblings and friends.
- Getting clearer about her personal job description as a mother. This was different to being led by every emotion and behaviour in her child.
Today’s parents swim in a sea of anxiety about any number of possible defects and dangers for their children. When I did a Google search on how parents can recognise problems in their child development, 4,960,000 results appeared! Added to this information over-load are the numerous categories where parents can look for problems: Language and Speech Developmental Delays, Vision Developmental Delays, Motor Skill Developmental Delays, Social and Emotional Developmental Delays, Cognitive Developmental Delays….. Such worry generating information can easily drive up the anxiety in many parents. Furthermore a worried parent will significantly influence the parent- child interactions in ways that are likely to confirm their imagined fear. The more a parent is distant in their marriage and/or from their extended family, the more such a worry cycle intensifies. Reversing such a pattern is immensely challenging – it can feel like a denial of the essence of maternal caretaking. Actually, the shift away from focussing anxiously on a child can build a pathway to a more confident expression of a parent’s caretaking instinct and wisdom. It also gives a child valuable enlarged breathing space for their natural growth and development.
*Names and details of this story have been changed