elevating child care

How to Stop Being an Anxious Parent and Enjoy Your Child

The intense performance pressure many of us feel as new parents combined with all the physical challenges — sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, recovery from the birth, etc. — can easily launch us into a cycle of anxiety. This is compounded in cases where our baby faces health complications, colic, or other issues.
I’ve been there and was so grateful to find my way out through the wisdom and support of infant expert Magda Gerber. Through Magda’s teachings, I learned that an anxious, panicky, high-intervention approach will tend to create even more distress for our babies. In turn, their discomfort will amplify our anxieties, and so the cycle begins. In other words, a key to raising a less stressed, more self-confident child and enjoying our experience as parents can be as simple as calming ourselves.

Simple, of course, does not necessarily mean easy, but Magda suggested that parents start by shifting our perspective and essentially trusting our children’s innate competency. In practical terms, this means:

Instead of feeling responsible for preventing or fixing crying, we first accept it so that we can understand and accurately address what is being communicated.

Instead of perceiving feelings as a call to action, we work on staying calm and listening so our child can share and feel truly heard.

Instead of assuming that every complaint our baby shares reflects an intense need, we understand that babies cry to express a wide range of thoughts and feelings, like “Ugh, I have a bit of a tummy ache,” “I’m tired,” “Being in this car seat is so annoying,” “Help! I’m hungry again!” While all of our child’s communication deserves a prompt response and acknowledgement, an urgent and immediate resolution of the issue is only occasionally required.

Instead of distracting and entertaining, we trust our children’s innate ability to play and amuse themselves.

Instead of acting out of fear, we lead with trust in our child’s basic competency.

Maxine’s story illustrates these points better than I ever could, and I was so touched when she shared it with me:

I wanted to share this video with you because it means something important. After 12 months of high-anxiety, high-intervention parenting (in part because of the horrible health issues my son suffered in infancy with severe reflux and breathing difficulty), I found your website and books, and things are changing. I have a diagnosis of adult ADHD, and even though our son is still tiny, we were beginning to fret about his temperament already. He needed constant intervention, could not amuse himself for even seconds, constantly complained… I, of course resorted to using the TV to pacify him, despite knowing this was not what I wanted to do. I was desperate and needed a break. Many things were a struggle. Car journeys would involve me shhh-ing, cranking up music, and singing nursery rhymes like a lunatic, all to stop his complaints.

Reading for the first time statements like “you need not take on your child’s emotions as your own” has transformed our lives. All I had previously read was attachment parenting philosophy involving parents who believed that leaving a baby to cry for any length of time was cruel and would damage him. So, naturally I was working all day every day to prevent crying. It was Fear Central. He obviously picked up on it all.

Now, finally, I’m just listening. Just watching and listening. The TV has been off for a week. If his complaints give me a headache, I take paracetamol and get on with being there with him through what is bothering him. I’m not scared of his feelings any more. And now we have things like this happening: My boy concentrating. My boy playing independently for up to 10 minutes. My boy knowing it’s okay to express himself and I won’t cry or get impatient or try to shut him up. And it’s amazing. Thank you

When I asked Maxine if I could share her story and video, she replied:

Please do. More people need to experience this connection. I’m seeing everything more clearly, and it’s only been a week.

Just now we came back from a shopping trip. Often he would moan the entire journey in his stroller, and I’d end up stressed and upset. Today I paid close attention to when he was moaning. Guess what? He doesn’t like going over bumps! So simple, so obvious… I told him every time a bump was coming and said sorry it was bumpy. Happier than he’s ever been. Decided the cars were more interesting than complaining after a few times, and that was that!

I feel like you’ve helped me to meet my own son. Now I’m excited about the journey ahead instead of worrying and feeling helpless.

I can’t thank you enough.

To learn more about Magda Gerber’s RIE approach, please check out these resources:


Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber

The RIE Manual

Pikler Bulletin #14 by Dr. Emmi Pikler

My compilation: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting 







My posts, especially Magda Gerber’s Gift to Grown-Ups and 9 Parenting Words to Live By

Related Posts with Thumbnails

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28 Responses to “How to Stop Being an Anxious Parent and Enjoy Your Child”

  1. avatar rick ackerly says:

    80% of success (with our children as with ourselves) is liberating ourselves from our anxiety. http://bit.ly/1Uoo1iC

  2. avatar Sara U says:

    What a great story. Thanks to Maxine for sharing!
    I always say: there is no greater motivation for self-improvement than becoming a parent. I’ve found myself in therapy several times to work through issues that confound my ability to stay present and calm for my kids. I’m grateful for the way your articles have showed me how to be the best self I can be so that I don’t perpetuate unhealthy cycles with my sons. I don’t always get it right–the struggle is real.

    • avatar janet says:

      I can completely relate to you, Sara! This parenting thing is a process for all of us. Thanks for your encouraging words!

  3. That is wonderful! My children are 11 and 13 and I still benefit from this lesson. Thank you, Maxine, for sharing it, and thank you, Janet, for your blog.

  4. avatar Shay M says:

    ‘I feel like you’ve helped me to meet my own son’ brought a tear to my eye. Thank you for sharing. These articles have helped me to really see my sons as well. They have helped me find much more of the joy in parenting.

    • avatar janet says:

      That’s the best feedback I could ever get, Shay: “They have helped me find much more of the joy in parenting…”

      Thank you!

  5. avatar Ruth Mason says:


  6. avatar Liora says:

    It’s a beautiful lesson and I’ll try to aply it to.
    My baby also cries in the car, in the stroller and when he is tired.
    The thing is that he can get very upset and then it gets very hard to calm him down. I see he suffers because he can’t come back to be ok and fights a lot… How can I help him not getting to that situation?

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Liora! Would it be possible to limit outings, particularly when your baby is tired? That’s the best way to avoid these situations. When babies are tired, it’s best for them to be a quiet, familiar, cozy bed.

  7. avatar Kp says:

    I love your work and enjoy reading a variety of sources/attending classes to better myself as a parent.

    However, I find my anxiety is often not caused by the child but a near paralysis of doing the “right” technique in a given situation. It’s like I have 100 best practices in my head and attempt to implement the best one even if my instinct tells me something might be better for my child/that particular situation. That is the anxiety I get: feeling bad for using an exersaucer at a friend’s house for the baby versus laying her on her back on the floor or not sitting and eating with the bigger kids on occasion because I have a kitchen to clean/task to accomplish and some days would rather do that!

    It boils down to being anxious about falling short of the ideal and, when faced with a parenting challenge, having these voices telling what I should do if I am one style of parent or another. I liked one of your past articles when a guest writer said she sings, “it’s not RIE but it’s ok” and now I do that too to lessen some of the pressure.

  8. avatar S says:

    YES! I had SO SO much fear from attachment parenting books. My daughter, 10, suffers from anxiety. I am just finding this model and find it to be such a lifelife, even at 10

  9. avatar Jennifer loher says:

    You writing has been so helpful for me. My 3 year old son will sometimes get in a repeating obvious questions mood and I think it might be an anxious/attention seeking behavior. It seems like if he is tired or bored he will ask a question he knows the answer to and do that repeated with similar things. I try to give joke answers or redirect but mostly I get stuck in a bad habit of answering, then ignoring and then saying I will not answer that question anymore. When I am annoyed I end up explaining how smart he is and that he should not ask questions like that (such as, what is that to a banana), he is very bright and well spoken and knows many words. Any suggestions on how I should intervene if it seems like he won’t get out of that mood after attempts to suggest an activity or cannge of scenery?

    • avatar Elisa says:

      So my LO is not old enough to ask these repetitive questions yet. But a friend gave me an strategy that I have used with her 3 yr old and other kids since because the repetitive questions seem to be a common theme. Kids love repetition! Anyway, she says “that’s a good question. What do you think it is?” (I’ve used other variations too, like I don’t know what do you think it is? etc) This seems to get them engaged and turns the question around to make it their responsibility to answer. I’ve found that this gets them to stop asking they same question over again and works for the “Why?” question. And if they don’t stop asking question you just go on broken record with the phrase above. Who knows, maybe today, the banana is a rocketship.

      • avatar Jazzi Kelley says:

        Just chiming in that this has always worked with my nephew. He seems to do it when he’s around adults he loves, but they’re paying attention to each other instead of to him. Stopping to listen to his answers (which are always interesting!) seems to satisfy him better than a distracted, “That’s a banana,” does.

  10. avatar Janice Tyler says:

    That’s a great story! I’m really thankful for sharing this. It gave me a really good thought about how to be happy and enjoy my time with kid. It’s true that sometimes unhappy things happen but all parents should take it at ease because that’s how life is. You can’t change but it’s possible to learn how to enjoy it no matter what. I think that those things are normal to all parents and everyone can relate it to. I believe that it’s possible to benefit from your post a lot and we shouldn’t feel ashamed because of it. It’s so normal that we could talk about it and share our thoughts. I think that everything is okay and it’s okay to learn. No one born as a genius who knows everything. So, let’s keep going!

  11. avatar P says:

    Hi Janet

    Are there any RIE play groups/parent-baby classes like the ones you hold/talk about on your blogs in South Africa?

  12. Yes, they definitely feed from our emotions! Even at an infant age, I noticed when I felt stressed, my daughter was stressed. Thank you for another great article.

  13. avatar Michelle says:

    Hello Janet, im an axious mom of 2 a 6 year old and a 5 mo th old.

    Im living day to day unsure of how to really interact with my son to get to know him. I know his material likes but dont know his emotions and what he feels inside. I was ignored as a child and really struggle with relating to my son.

    Im constantly telling him to slow down and listen, be still, stop fidgeting. But I see he gets it from me. I have an extreamly hard time with thia because im scared of yelling at him and losing my patients.
    I want to teach him things but I dont know where he is at developmentally…how can I find out?
    I feel like im failing him as a mom. My 5 month old well her to. I cant seem to get a schdule going for her. Please can you help

  14. avatar Michelle says:

    How can I set my kids up and myself &husband for success?

  15. avatar Kate says:

    My 3 year old hated being sad. If she sees someone else being sad or (or someone being unkind) or any negative feeling, in reality /a book / on tv, she tells us not to talk about it, struggles not to cry & wants to see it repeatedly until she understands it and and it doesn’t upset her any more. I always tell her it’s ok to be sad, but she hates crying. She is similar when hurt – takes a few deep breaths & might want a cuddle, then says she’s ok and happy and moved on. Gets very cross if anyone asks if she’s ok or where it hurts or what happened. She recently started nursery and cried when we left her (possible because her key worker was unexpectedly no there) despite loving her practice sessions previously. She shouted angrily at the staff there and they said it was an unusual reaction (I think being scared & shouting ‘I dont want to be here’ is understandable tho??) Today, when she lost sight of me at a play group she burst into tears & shouted at the person who tried to comfort her. She’s never done that before. She cries whenever she thinks about nursery now. Have i done something to make her so reluctant to be sad/cry? I always say it’s ok to be sad and cry and give her a cuddle…

    • avatar Kate says:

      Also – til now/ that day ar nursery she’s always been very confident to go off and spend an hour or two without me (with familiar adults)

    • avatar janet says:

      It sounds like she’s sensitive and private about her feelings and maybe feels they’ve been a bit infringed on? It could have been very subtle. I would say much less about her feelings… I would be patient and leave a lot of open space when she has negative feelings. Refrain from saying things like “It’s okay to be sad” or “do you want a cuddle?” I also wouldn’t instruct her to take deep breaths or do anything like that. With the books, I think she’s relating to the feelings and processing some of them that way, so that’s good. All in all, I wouldn’t worry that she’s afraid or reluctant or that there’s any big problem here. Be calm, open, patient and trusting.

      • avatar Kate says:

        Thank you so much. I was always told I was too sensitive as a child and didn’t want to do that to my daughter, but wasn’t sure of the most respectful & constructive alternative. I’ll know what to ask her nursery to do at drop off now too. Thank you.

        • avatar janet says:

          My pleasure, Kate. I’m glad to be able to support you in your wonderful goal.

  16. avatar Marian says:

    A proud evening, a thankful evening.

    I remembered your article/post about what a child wants and I kept it at the forefront of my mind, while my daughter unwound from a busy day by “pushing” up against me at bedtime.

    She said, leave, I stayed. She hit, I said I won’t let you. She moved to the bottom of the bed, I let her….a moment later, she said, Pull me back.

    I sat up and lifted her back to my side, where she snuggled in, let out a cry of missing some friends, I said, Yes, you miss your friends. She snuggled in deeper and I “petted” her hair and she fell asleep.

    My husband was witness to this and said he could see where I was putting your guidance into practice. It was particularly difficult this evening because I, myself, was running on fumes.

    At one point, when she was nudging me with her foot, which was driving me up the wall, but I couldn’t let her know that, I screamed profanities in my head. I had a mother who was not raised by an emotionally mature mother–I am doing everything I can to break that cycle.

    I literally felt my daughter sink into my body fully relieved that I never lost her trust in me to be there for her. I stuck by her. I loved her through her tiredness. I show my unconditional support for her: I felt her feeling this.

    I passed her test and she was so relieved.

    My husband says I make parenting look so easy, but those profanities in my head are my way of keeping my cool. Life is really difficult right now, so I am faking it a lot. When I have enough self-care (I am meditating at least once a day, again, and stopping to stare at the clouds, birds, leaves …) I do not find myself swearing or screaming silently.

    Self-care. All of your guidance, for me, moves into understanding and action with grace when I have taken 20 minutes, minimum, for me.

    You, and Dr. Laura, mention those two tiny words in nearly every post and it’s now the first thing I ask myself: Have you taken care of yourself today?

    Thank you. I am taking care of myself more and more (circumstances are changing around here removing some difficulties) and enjoying myself as a parent more and more.

    • avatar janet says:

      A time to celebrate, for sure! And I hope you will HOLD ON to this feeling of accomplishment for a very long time, savor it, and remember it whenever you are feeling like you “can’t”. Take very good care, my friend.

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