Fearful Mum

February 09 2020 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: My 17-year-old daughter is thirsting for independence and freedom. Despite her inner discipline and studious disposition, and my great trust in her, every time she goes out I feel anxious.

My job often takes me abroad and, whenever this happens, I call her continuously to make sure she is okay. Should I seek psychological help, as my husband suggests?


Parenting is hard, and parenting teens is harder. It’s normal to be anxious about our kids at least to some degree. The problem comes when we allow our anxiety to stop us from taking care of our kids and, instead, making them take care of us.

Teens need and want our guidance. A study in the journal Child Development found that – contrary to conventional wisdom – teens actually want more time with their parents, especially if its one-on-one time. Other research shows that teens actually wish they could talk more with their parents about their concerns than they actually do. What stops them? Our anxiety. They don’t want to upset us. They don’t want to be lectured, and they don’t want us to become hysterical. They want us to calm them down. They don’t want to have to help us keep it together.

Parents tend to think that we’re looking out for our kids when we lecture them, worry about them, or ask them to reassure us that they’re not getting into things they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, what we’re actually doing is asking them to parent us.

Kids – and teens in particular – don’t want to parent us. They need us to be their rock. They need to know that we’re big enough, smart enough, and grown-up enough to be able to hear all the scary things they have to face every day and help them handle it well. That means that we have to know how to keep ourselves calm enough to listen, not lecture. To reassure, not need to be reassured.

The question isn’t as simple as “should I be calling my daughter as much as I do or not?” I really wish parents would be more intentional about finding ways to stay connected to their teens, especially if they’re traveling. But if, every time you call, the theme of your conversation is, “Tell me you’re okay. Tell me you’re not getting into trouble. Tell me that you’re not ruining your life.” Then you aren’t parenting her. You’re asking her to parent you. If that’s the case, any resentment you get from her or your husband isn’t rooted in the idea that you’re too concerned for your daughter. It’s really about you not being concerned enough. Or, at least, that you’re not expressing your concerns in a way that’s doing anything for anyone besides you.

Active listening is the key. When you talk with your daughter, make sure to listen and ask questions that show that you are genuinely interested (not just trying to make yourself feel better).  Ask questions that help you see things through her eyes. “How did you feel about that?” “What was good about that?” “What was hard about that?” Unless the situation absolutely requires it, try not to give advice. Instead, ask questions that help your daughter figure things out for herself. “What do you think you’d like to do about that?” “How might you like to handle that?” “Have you ever had to deal with things like that before? What did you do then?”

Another technique that is helpful with teens is helping them reflect on the qualities or virtues that would be useful for helping them respond to challenging situation. For instance, “I think you’re a really responsible person in general.  What do you think the responsible thing to do would be?”  “I know it’s important to you to be kind to people. What do you think would be the kind thing to do here?” And so on.

When we can adopt this posture, our kids become grateful for our input. They are eager to open up to us because instead of adding to their burden, we help to unburden them. By practicing active listening and asking these kinds of questions, we teach them how to think through their own problems and challenges in ways that help them grow in confidence and even virtue.

Updated on February 09 2020