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How to Reduce Worry

Do you worry too much as a parent? Learn why you do, and how to constructively channel that energy.
Updated: December 1, 2022

How to Reduce Worry

(From Protecting the Gift. Copyright 1999 by Gavin de Becker. Published by The Dial Press. Reprinted with permission.)

Why you worry

All the energy a new mother might once have put into protecting herself she now puts into protecting her baby - because it is herself, literally a physical part of her. Author (and mother) Elizabeth Stone has said that the decision to have a child is momentous because ''it is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.''

Parents enter into a contract with nature to keep that heart beating, to keep their children alive. That means parents recognize that children could die, yet whenever the thought comes into their heads, they quickly banish it. Writer Shawn Hubler says, ''Preparedness is a funny thing; there's only so much of it a soul can stand. The problem with bracing for the worst is, you have to imagine it first.''

A parent's ever-changing worries are usually a mask for one remote possibility, one that all parents fear: the death of their child. The specter of that highly unlikely possibility influences our thoughts about adventure and caution, recreation and rest, freedom and autonomy. In short, that ghost puts in his two cents' worth every time we make a decision about our children. But that ghost loses much of his power when we look him in the eye.

Any discussion of death is really about the small details, since the big detail - that we all die- doesn't change. What people are obsessed with is the schedule of death. We have an idea of how long a person ought to live and when someone comes in too far below our expectation, we call it a tragedy.

We are equally fascinated by the method of death. We say on hearing a story of someone who died in a fire or who drowned, ''What a terrible way to die.'' If you think about this you'll realize that deaths people describe as terrible have one thing in common: the deceased could see it coming. That forced acknowledgment of death, not the manner of death, is what we're really recoiling from. After all, being burned or crushed or trapped underwater is terrible even if the person survives. Such misfortune could be more accurately described as ''a terrible way to live,'' because dying might be the easiest part of the experience. But we don't want to see it coming. ''He died in his sleep'' is always said with awe and appreciation, for that's the preferred experience of death. Why? Because it's a non-experience of death.

This desire to be surprised by death, to be unaware of its advance, is ironic since there is such clear benefit to seeing it coming. Seeing it coming is the only way we get a fighting chance to influence the schedule. We'd rather our children never be in grave danger, of course, but if they are, wouldn't it be better to know it? It seems we want it both ways: to be warned of danger and to deny death. To effectively protect our children, we must resolve this conflict.

We protect our children because we love them, of course, but we are also keeping our contract with nature. And we are tempted with a huge incentive: immortality, or at least as close as we get to it. Because we will not see our children die, and because they are a part of us that can keep living for a long while, they are, for all practical purposes, immortal. For a species that fears death as much as we do, this is weighty stuff, and it just may be that the stakes of our children's safety are higher for us than for them.

In America, children are more likely to make it through childhood than just about anywhere else in the world, so the odds are already very good that our children will live many years after we are gone. But we want to make the odds better still - and that's more likely if we understand violence.

When I've asked parents to list the most serious risks their children face, it's understandable that some say, ''I don't want to think about such things,'' or ''I can't imagine.'' The problem is if you cannot imagine something, you also cannot predict it, nor protect against it.

Many people don't have the luxury of deciding to avoid unpleasant thoughts. There are, for example, help-giving professionals who have no choice but to regularly see terrible things. Difficult though they are, the experiences of those people teach them powerful lessons - often instantly. The fireman need pull only one unbelted child out of a gruesome car wreck and he will forever be an advocate of seatbelts. The emergency-room surgeon who just once follows the path of a bullet through a child's stomach will finally get rid of that old rifle he last saw in the basement (or was it the garage?).

The truth about kidnapping

Since learning about what we dread is the way to overcome it and reduce worry, I want to thoroughly explore the thing parents have told me is their Number One fear: that a child would be kidnapped by a stranger.

It's important to note that this particular outcome is very, very rare. Out of nearly seventy million American children, fewer than a hundred a year are probably kidnapped by strangers. A child is vastly more likely to have a heart attack, and child heart attacks are so rare that most parents (correctly) never even consider the risk. A child is 250 times more likely to be shot with a gun than be kidnapped by a stranger.

I am defining stranger kidnapping here as those cases where a child was gone overnight, was transported a distance of fifty miles or more, was ransomed, was killed, or the perpetrator intended to keep the child permanently. The fear of these things happening is probably not primal, given their rareness, but for Americans, the fear has been encouraged a lot. One outrageous estimate reported in the popular media was that 50,000 kids are kidnapped each year by strangers. An FBI spokesman put this in perspective when he pointed out that the United States lost 50,000 troops in the Vietnam War. Most everyone knew of a family that lost a son or brother or father there, but, he asked, ''How many of us know someone who has had a child abducted by a stranger?'' (In 1985, the same year this was said, the FBI investigated fifty-seven cases of kidnapping by strangers; it's been fairly close to that each year since.)

Even though this issue needs a full exploration, there are people who will resist a sober presentation of the facts. Why? Because scores of organizations raise money around this particular fear. Denny Abbott, then national director of the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center , has said, ''In my twenty-five years in social services, I have never seen an issue as exploited as the problem of missing children.'' Like most exploitation, there's money involved. Some ''nonprofits'' pay their executive directors huge salaries. Then there are businesses selling products such as identification kits and ''reward insurance.'' One firm put out an alarming brochure showing a young girl chained to a bed. It turned out the photo was staged and the child was the daughter of the owner. (Thankfully, there are also many well-meaning and effective organizations helping protect children.)

Every year, there are thousands of kids missing - most are runaways - and thousands of others taken by divorced parents. Some organizations have described these using the phrase ''nonfamily abduction,'' which sounds like kidnapping by strangers. Most often, however, the perpetrator is the boyfriend of the child's mother, or someone else known to the family. There are cases of sexual molestation where a child is lured somewhere for the brief time it takes to commit the offense, and these too are often called kidnappings. All of these are very serious problems, of course. (For information on what to do if you face one of these situations, the organization I recommend is the Center for Missing and Exploited Children 1-800-THE-LOST.)

Unfortunately, in the jumble of scary statistics it's come to appear that stranger kidnapping is frequent, but in fact, it just isn't one of the things human beings do very often. When you make a deep scratch in the rhetoric and the fear, no matter what rational number you accept, it isn't as high as most people have been led to believe. For example, one year in which there were three such cases in Colorado, most of the people questioned for a Denver Post poll felt there had been nearly ten times that many.

You may have seen recent TV news reports about abductions of babies from hospitals. These are, admittedly, frightening stories, but parents would likely worry much less if the stories included this:
Of the 4.2 million babies born each year in more than 3,500 facilities, the total number abducted is fewer than ten.

Still scary I know, but if you studied the details of one hundred baby abductions from hospitals - and you'd have to go back fifteen years to gather that many cases - you'd find that ninety-four of the hundred were quickly recovered unharmed. Ninety-four. But no matter how rare such incidents are, when the anchorperson says, ''Next up: babies abducted from hospitals!'' it places the topic on your agenda, and voila: fear. I guess we can't expect them to say, ''Next up: a big inflated waste of your time that'll make you anxious for no good reason.''

There's a final irony: While the TV news trumpets cases of abductions from hospitals, from where in the hospital do you suppose babies are taken? The nursery? The pediatric ward? Some. But most abducted babies were taken from the mother's room while in the care of the mother. An exhausted mother with only a few hours' experience at protecting a child might be fooled into giving her baby to someone pretending to be an authorized employee, or she might leave her baby alone in the room. Accordingly, this is one dreaded outcome (like many) that parents can easily prevent.

In addition to alarming TV news reports, there are now products and services that go even farther into the macabre, such as products for gathering DNA samples from your children. One firm boasts that its home kit will preserve a child's DNA for more than eighty years, inspiring us to imagine a long tragedy (longer, ironically, than the lives of all the participants would likely be in any event).

There are firms that store dental records for circumstances only the most masochistic parent would choose to dwell upon. There are even services to affix an ID-coded crown within a child's mouth - stainless steel of course, because it lasts longer than teeth. These schemes do not protect children from harm; to readily identify someone's remains is hardly a safety precaution they'll thank you for. (''True Caitlin, we never taught you about rape, but if you'd ever turned up in a ditch somewhere, we were sure prepared.'')

Such ghoulish services offer vulnerable parents the feeling that they've done something about the unthinkable - so they needn't think of it. I certainly understand that the risks to children can seem overwhelming, a fact made clearer as I met with parents around the country over the last two years. One father worried about a ''baby black-market'' where infants are taken to Mexico and sold. (Is there a shortage of babies in Mexico? I doubt it.) Whether it was a murderous au pair or a shooting spree at the high-school, most parents' fears were programmed by TV news producers. Because of this, I looked beyond the fears du jour at the more primal concerns of parents.

Eve, the mother of two girls, told me that when she became a parent, she began to fear her own death for the first time:

It wasn't for myself at all, but for my children. I cannot fathom leaving them motherless. Sure, some of it is ego, believing that nobody else could raise my children with as much love, understanding, patience, and devotion as I do. But mostly it's the thought that if something happened to me, who would be there for them?

A mother's fear of not being there for her child is likely universal. One mother told me that even though she'd always feared flying, she'd rather fly with her children than without them. ''I'm more afraid of leaving them alone than of us all dying together.''

When it comes to protecting children from violence, most worries are balanced by a primal feeling of power that comes to new mothers. Again, it is Eve who explains it:

After my daughter was born, the love I felt for her (and still do) was so intense, so beyond anything I had ever imagined, that I knew I would not allow any harm to come to her. This made me feel, well, dangerous. If someone hurt her, or even tried to, I knew I would take justice into my own hands.

Eve's feeling of power after the birth of her daughter is more than just a feeling - it is a real power. Particularly for women raised to believe they are not able to protect themselves, motherhood gives permission to be dangerous. It connects women to a power they might not ever have felt before: it is the power of violence, a power known to most men. Eve, an otherwise peaceful woman, was expressing her willingness to kill another person if the need arose. I encourage women with children to seize and not retreat from this intimate understanding of violence. Doing so can bring relief from a lifetime's worry about your own vulnerability.

Learn to worry well

While researching parental worry, I found a brilliant, humane, and often funny book written by an unlikely person: the funeral director from Milford, Michigan. In The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Thomas Lynch explores avoidable death from the perspective of a man who sees it often. Lynch has a lot to say about parental worry, for his own father (also an undertaker) was an expert worrier:
Whenever I or one of my siblings would ask to go here or there or do this or that, my father's first response was almost always ''No!'' He had just buried someone doing that very thing.

He had just buried a boy who had toyed with matches, or played baseball without a helmet on, or went fishing without a life preserver, or ate the candy that a stranger gave him. And what the boys did that led to their fatalities matured as my brothers and sisters and I matured, the causes of their deaths becoming subtly interpersonal rather than cataclysmic as we aged. The stories of children struck by lightning were replaced by narratives of unrequited love gone suicidal, teenagers killed by speed and drink or overdosed on drugs, and hordes of the careless but otherwise blameless dead who'd found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My mother, who had more faith in the power of prayer and her own careful parenting, would often override his prohibitions. ''Oh Ed,'' she would argue over dinner, ''Leave them be! They've got to learn some things for themselves.'' Once she told him, ''Don't be ridiculous, Ed,'' when he'd refused me permission to spend the night at a friend's house across the street. ''What!'' she scolded him, ''Did you just bury someone who died of a night spent at Jimmy Shryock's house?''

Thomas Lynch's parents were working their way through a familiar struggle: one parent is reasonably cautious but not fearful, the other unreasonably cautious and always fearful. This is a collision of two distinct protective processes: the management of actual risks as they develop versus the worry about imagined risks. They are rarely the same risks.

When dreaded outcomes are actually imminent, we don't worry about them - we take action. Seeing lava from the local volcano make its way down the street toward our house does not cause worry; it causes running. Also, we don't usually choose imminent events as subjects for our worrying, and thus emerges an ironic truth: often, the very fact that you are worrying about something means that it isn't likely to happen.

When you worry yourself into a state of artificial fear about your children, you distract yourself from what is actually happening in favor of what you imagine is happening. Since the human imagination is powerful, you can conjure quite a litany of terrors that might befall your children. Anytime you ask yourself the question ''Could this happen to my children?'' the answer will be Yes - because anything could happen, but there are better questions, such as Will this happen? Or, Is this happening?

In parenting, as in physics, everything we give energy to takes energy from something else. Thus, needless worry has several costs. For one, there is the cost of the parental conflict itself, a conflict in which the worrier and the non-worrier each has an unfair advantage. Because a child's safety is at the center of these debates, it is difficult to end a discussion of some dreaded possibility without concession to the worrier. On the other hand, the husband who always minimizes his wife's worries gets the luxury of being able to worry less himself - after all, his wife is handling that for him. Hillary Clinton has said, ''Like most mothers, I am the designated worrier in our family. When Chelsea arrived, I went from worrying only five days a week to worrying on weekends too.''

People worry because it serves them in some way. You've likely known someone who worried so much that people stopped telling that person anything. ''Don't worry your mother,'' or ''I'm worried half to death'' are phrases that serve worriers by offering protection from too much reality. Excessive worry also helps some people deal with matters they cannot influence. Powerlessness is one of the hardest things for parents to admit and there comes a point with the safety of children where we have to do just that. Worry helps fight off that dreadful feeling that there's nothing we can do, because worrying feels like we are doing something. Thomas Lynch describes it as ''the war we wage against those facts of life over which we have no power, none at all.'' He says, ''It makes for heroics and histrionics, but it is no way to raise children.''

Children raised by chronic worriers may or not become victims of violence, but it is absolutely certain they will become victims of worry. In his brilliant book, The Heart of Man, Dr. Erich Fromm tells of a mother who is always interested in dark prognosis for her child's future, but unimpressed with anything favorable that occurs: ''She does not harm the child in any obvious way, yet she may slowly strangle his joy of life.'' This is an interesting way of putting it given that the literal meaning of the word worry is to strangle and choke. People who grew up smothered by unwarranted fears that haunted them into adulthood will see the wisdom in this saying: Everybody dies, but not everybody lives.

True fears and unwarranted fears may at times feel the same, but you can tell them apart. True fear is a gift that signals us in the presence of danger; thus, it will be based upon something you perceive in your environment or your circumstance. Unwarranted fear or worry will always be based upon something in your imagination or your memory.

Worry is the fear we manufacture; it is a choice. Conversely, true fear is involuntary; it will come and get our attention if necessary. But, if a parent or a child feels fear constantly, there is no signal left for when it's really needed. Thus, the parent who chooses to worry all the time or who invests unwarranted fears into children is actually making them less safe. Worry is not a precaution; it is the opposite because it delays and discourages constructive action.

Thousands of airline passengers worry about planes crashing, and one could say this has been highly effective (considering our exceptional air safety record). But does anybody really believe that worry will help a flight be safer? For many of the millions of parents away from their children during the workday, worrying has become a way of loving from the office - but do they believe that worrying will make their children any safer? Some do, because they may interpret worrisome thoughts as intuitive signals sent to remind them of something important, something they've overlooked, something they haven't yet considered.

Turn worry into the power of intuition

Is worry an intuitive signal? In a roundabout way, it can be. That's because what we choose to worry about, however bad, is usually easier to look at than some other less palatable issue. For this reason, a good exercise when worrying is to ask yourself, ''What am I choosing not to see right now?'' Worry may well be distracting you from something important. For example, we worry about the child molester we saw arrested on the news even though we (and the police and the news people) know who he is, what he looks like, and where he is - in jail, for God's sake. At the same time, we choose not to think about the man at the daycare center who gives us the creeps.

How can you decide which impulses to explore and which to ignore? By learning how you communicate with yourself. When you honor accurate intuitive signals and evaluate them without denial (believing that either the favorable or the unfavorable outcome is possible), you will come to trust that you'll be notified if there is something worthy of your attention. Fear will gain credibility because it won't be applied wastefully. Thus, trusting intuition is the exact opposite of living in fear.

Explore every intuitive signal, but briefly and not repetitively. When faced with some worry or uncertain fear, ask yourself: Am I responding to something in my environment or to something in my imagination? Is this feeling based on something I perceive in my circumstance, or merely something in my memory? Is the fear that my teenage son will have a car accident tonight based on some actual perception that he is unfit to drive tonight, or is it based on that frightening news footage I saw last week?

Aside from encouraging the chronic worriers in your life to avoid watching the local news, there's another home remedy you can suggest to them:
Each time you have a worry, define when you expect the dreaded outcome to occur, and mark it down on a calendar. Imagine you are worried that your daughter will be harmed while attending college in the big city. When? In a year, a month, a week, later today? Imagine you chose a week. Write it down, and when that milestone passes without incident, make note of that too. Record these failed predictions for a year, or until you are too embarrassed to keep doing it, whichever comes first.

Another exercise is to ask highly specific questions about a given dreaded outcome, as I did with a mother named Alice who was terribly worried that her daughter would be kidnapped by a stranger. Here's the actual exchange:

Who will do it?
I don't know; he's a stranger.
Does he have a history of kidnapping?
I don't know.
Where will it happen?
Maybe on the way to school, I don't know.
How will he do it?
He could lure her into a car.
What kind of car does he drive?
I don't know, a station wagon.
When will it happen?
In the morning.
How would he get her into the car?
By offering to take her horseback riding.
Where will he take her?
To his apartment.
He lives in an apartment building?
Yeah, I guess so.
Won't neighbors see him bringing her in?
They all work during the day.

She was writing quite a novel when she stopped herself and said plainly ''I don't know, I guess I'm just making things up.'' (No need to guess on that one.) Soon enough, she said, ''It doesn't seem very likely, does it?'' Few worries survive a cross-examination of highly specific questions (which we can ask of ourselves). Anytime we start to invent possibilities or find that the answer to most questions is ''I don't know,'' we're not evaluating real or present risk.

When unable to shake a worry, we can simply acknowledge (and tell others if we choose to) that we are feeling anxiety right now about our son driving on this rainy night. We don't have to justify our feelings with imitations of logic. We don't have to build a case to support our worry or give our anxiety credence by citing all the risks we ever heard of. Trying to persuade someone else to share your worry rarely works anyway, because you can rarely make a very good case. It is enough to just call it worry, find some comfort, and move on.

Take action to protect your children

Many parents go from worry to worry, never stopping long enough to see that their children are prevailing through life's challenges day in and day out. This is like surviving an air crash and then pausing at the top of the evacuation slide to worry about whether your luggage will make it on time. Sometimes, taking a moment for some gratitude keeps a few worries away.

The best antidote to worry is action. If there is an action that will lessen the likelihood of a dreaded outcome occurring, and if that action doesn't cost too much in terms of effort or freedom, then take it. The worry about whether we remembered to close the baby gate at the top of the stairs can be stopped in an instant by checking. Then it isn't a worry anymore; it's just a brief impulse. Almost all of the worry parents feel about keeping their children safe evolves from the conflict between intuition and inaction.

Your choices when worrying are clear: take action, have faith, pray, seek comfort, or keep worrying. When it comes to violence, you've already chosen to take action by learning. Thomas Lynch's father was too busy worrying about danger to actually learn about it, and that kept him from seeing his children as anything but potential casualties. ''For my father,'' Lynch wrote, ''what we did and who we became were incidental to the tenuous fact of our being. That We Were seemed sufficient for the poor worried man.''

When Lynch became a parent himself, his father's demons were there: ''I remember in those first years as a father and a funeral director, new at making babies and at burying them, I would often wake in the middle of the night, sneak into the rooms where my sons and daughter slept, and bend to their cribsides to hear them breathe. It was enough. I did not need astronauts or presidents or doctors or lawyers. I only wanted them to breathe. Like my father, I had learned to fear.''

This could more accurately read ''From my father, I had learned to fear,'' for as distinguished psychiatrist Karl Menninger has said, ''Fears are educated into us and can, if we wish, be educated out.''

Gavin de Becker

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