How to Be a Less 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 book: 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


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. 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.

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

  2. 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.

  3. ‘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.

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

      Thank you!

  4. 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?

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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?

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. Hi Janet

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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

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

  13. Vicki Burgess says:

    This is fantastic! Another happy mom means another happy child.

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