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The Most Dangerous Animal in the World

I had a completely irrational conversation with 2 adults today. They have a lovely 6 month-old daughter who has some minor medical issues, but overall is as close to a perfect kid as any of us could hope to have. There is truly nothing they need to worry about. And yet.... They worry about everything. All the things. All the time. And, they think that's a good thing. I beg to differ, and I want everyone to know why I think parental worry is largely overrated. And why a human in fear is the most dangerous animal in the world.

The trouble with overly worrying is that it pushes you into one of two undesirable positions. You will either find ways to fix the thing that worries you or you won't be able to fix the thing that worries you. Worrying about things you can't change is a recipe for sleepless nights and will generally drive you crazy. There is wisdom in the advice to stop worrying about what you don't control.

I see the other option as the bigger problem though - worrying and then setting about fixing all of the things that cause you worry. This idea is hard for some parents to grasp. How could worrying about your child and trying to make their life better be a bad thing? Answer: because there are a couple of parenting worry traps that catch almost everyone eventually.

1. Assigning too much importance to minor obstacles

News flash: 2 year-olds are picky. All of them are picky about something. Food. Clothing. Toys. Their morning routine. Whatever. They are irrationally and unpredictably particular about all kinds of things. So one day, they might eat everything in your house and the next day they eat 2 grapes and a cracker. This happens.

Likewise, your 8 month-old may be sleeping 8 hours straight and then suddenly start waking up at 1 AM. This also happens. Or your 10 year-old might forget a math worksheet at school and it's due the next day. Or whatever random glitch might come up for your kid.

Parents tend to fixate on the problems that reflect their biggest fears for their child. Parents who worry about their children eating enough will fixate on those low intake days. Parents who generally struggle with sleep training (in whatever form that means for them) will freak out about sleep regression. And if you're worried that your kid might not grow up and get their act together eventually, you're going to obsess about small assignments.

Guess what. None of it matters. These are normal hiccups in growing up. They happen. And no matter what you do, it's going to be fine. As long as your kid is growing, let them eat their 2 grapes and be happy. Ride out the sleep regression, because soon she won't acknowledge you in public. And whether you drive back to school to get the worksheet, text a friend and have them send you a pic, or let him take the consequences of the missed assignment, the long division worksheet will not make or break his future, I promise.

Don't make yourself crazy about things that just don't matter. Your stress is absolutely felt by your children. One of the best advantages you can give them is the ability to manage stress and let go of things that don't matter. It's a life-saving skill.

2. Incorrectly identifying the cause of the problem

There is an enormous body of literature that confirms that vaccines don't cause developmental regression. And yet, parents show up in my office convinced that their child's 4 month vaccines are the reason that their child isn't babbling at 6 months. So, they want to stop or delay vaccines. There are a thousand reasons why kids might not meet a milestone on time. Sensory issues, true developmental delay, or maybe they just haven't gotten to that skill yet. But I promise, your vaccines weren't the cause.

The mis-identification problem is two-fold. First, in the push to eliminate the cause of the problem, we often eliminate something that the child actually needs to be healthy. Like vaccines. Gluten-intolerance often falls into this category as well. If your child's health concern is not actually due to proven celiac disease, eliminating gluten will also put your child at risk for vitamin deficiencies. Eliminating the wrong thing can be dangerous.

Second, by focusing on one possible cause, we can miss the real problem. My greatest worry about the public debate on vaccines is that parents may be missing other public health messages that can actually save a child's life. Skipping your child's vaccines won't prevent sudden infant death (scientific fact). But co-sleeping with your baby may cause it (also scientific fact). Assigning fault in the wrong place is distracting and parents can easily focus on the wrong things and miss the right ones.

3. Blocking your child from learning to solve problems

Beyond #1 and #2, the act of intervening itself often causes the most long-term damage for children. Swooping in to save your child from the bumps in the road of life or from their own mistakes sends them a clear message, "You are not competent." For the 10 year-old who forgets his math worksheet at school, there is a valuable lesson in getting a zero on the assignment.

Likewise, life is unpredictable. Sometimes the morning routine will change. It's far better to teach your child to deal with variation than to create an overly rigid, protective routine for them. Because that's not life. And kids whose parents control their day to the extent that they are protected from the flux of life do not do well when that protection is removed. And one day, I hope, they'll be out on their own in this world.

Childhood is your only chance to prepare a child for adulthood. Give them room to run. Give them room to fall. Be there to pick them up, dust them off, and help them learn the lesson. It's the only way to build strong adults who won't end up living on your couch forever. The only alternative is to expend useless energy on things that don't matter and live in fear of things you can't change. Neither of those is a safe option for anyone.

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