Parenting Anxiety

Dania Jekel, MSW, Former Executive Director

Dania Jekel, MSW, Former Executive Director

Sonia Janks, Contributing Editor

About the Author

Dania Jekel, MSW is co-founder and former executive director of AANE. She was one of the first people to develop programs to train professionals about the needs and strengths of people on the autism spectrum, especially adults, women, and those who receive a diagnosis later in life. She also served on the Massachusetts Autism Commission.

I know I am not alone in feeling the need to unwind and de-stress. I grew up in the Age of Aquarius, but today I would say we are living in the Age of Anxiety. Parenting a child of any age, neurotypical or not, can be a major source of stress. Most parents today worry about how they are parenting their child and whether or not they are doing what is right for them to lead a happy, stable, and fulfilled life. For parents of individuals on the spectrum, the stress can be unique, especially when the child’s trajectory is unclear and their neurodiversity presents special challenges. We are familiar with the small, day-to-day things that create anxiety like homework and the amount of screen time, but specifically, I want to talk about a few of the larger issues that worry parents about how they are parenting their Autistic child.

  • The concern that you are not doing enough for a young child with a newer diagnosis. Information and opinions on the internet and scores of professionals emphasize how important it is not to lose that “window of opportunity” in the early years for social skills groups, OT, intensive interventions, and more. It is hard not to feel completely overwhelmed and always question whether or not you are doing the right thing.
  • Debating whether to push your child or step back. This is generally an ongoing concern: How much do you encourage your child to do something new, which could result in finding a new interest, skill, or connection? Or is it better to let them stay with what is familiar and brings comfort?
  • Wondering how much to help and advocate directly and how & when to shift to a supporting role. This could even vary from situation to situation. For instance, a child may demonstrate strong self-advocacy skills with one teacher, but not another. Parents may feel perplexed in what their role should be.

These are just a few of the areas that cause parenting anxiety. Sometimes the worry can prevent a parent from really enjoying their Autistic child when they constantly feel they have to analyze everything, create teachable moments, and constantly question whether or not they are responding in the best way to every situation. Even when a child is doing well, it’s hard to relax, worrying about when the next issue is going to surface.

So what do I recommend doing? Here are a few things to keep in mind, which may help you build a less stressful life with your child.

Take care of yourself as a person. If you are not feeling great, it’s hard to have perspective. We talk quite a bit about helping your child build a life that will help reduce their stress. If you can, build a life for yourself that curbs your anxiety as well. Each person is going to be different in terms of how to do that, but I encourage you to find a way to take care of yourself that replenishes your reserves. Build in routines of relaxation, like exercise, a favorite activity, or meditation. Find friends or a social network of people who understand and can provide the support and help you need.

Understand that building a child’s self-understanding and self-esteem should be a top priority. Your job as a parent is for them to accept and love who they are and to trust you. This will be a strong foundation for all aspects of their life. Let that be a guide when you feel you aren’t sure what to do.

Work in partnership and in collaboration with your child. Figure out issues and problems together. Try things out. Make sure your expectations aren’t out of sync with your child’s development. Wait until your child is ready. Even when your child may not show appreciation or may seem unmotivated, use the collaborative approach. Remember that sometimes behaviors can be a reaction to anxiety and stress.

Understand that sometimes there are no clear right answers. You will try to find what works for your child and for your situation, and sometimes that means making the best decision you can in the moment. Observe your child. Trust yourself and your child. You will both make mistakes, but together you can try again.

I’m not sure there is a way to prevent worry, but do not underestimate your child’s resiliency. So take care of yourself, and be the best parent you can be without trying to be the “perfect parent.” It’s just not possible, and it also helps your child understand that perfection isn’t expected of them either. As an Autistic adult mentioned to me recently, “…‘good enough’ is okay and…I don’t have to be perfect.” That’s a good lesson for all of us.

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