Why You Shouldn’t Show ‘Anxious Interest’ In Your Child

Our anxiousness for the success of our children can sometimes backfire and create fear or self-doubt in them. How can we stay concerned, engaged and also, supportive with our children?

By Joseph Holtgreive

Why You Shouldn’t Show ‘Anxious Interest’ In Your Child

When my oldest son, who was in class XI at the time, slept through his alarm for the second time in a week, my concern for him made me decidedly anxious. He is a bright, wonderful, young man whose choices, at times, are in direct conflict with his academic success. That same morning, already frustrated that he had overslept, I asked if he had finished the late assignment he was working on the night before. The answer I got was a 'No'. To add to my frustration, he said, “I am super nervous that I might have a Maths test today, and I haven’t had the time to prepare for it.” 

At this point, I lost my temper. I was expressing the anger and frustration I was feeling my mind was filled with fear of future consequences and a fear for his failure.

This is when the valuable parenting advice given by a wise friend and colleague of mine came in handy. He told me that, as parents, the best thing we can offer our children is ‘unanxious interest’. He also taught me that it is human to say or do things that may cause ruptures in our relationships, but that every rupture is an opportunity for repair.

After having lost my temper with my son, I took a step back and recognised that my reaction was unproductive. I decided to respond differently, in a way that would help him learn and grow. So, I shared my concern and dissatisfaction with his choices and expressed my desire to help. I gave my son a hug, and told him that I loved him even though his behaviour may drive me crazy at times.

This experience takes me to one of the most important concepts of engineering — friction. When designing or analysing any system, it is essential to understand where friction will occur. If not managed properly, friction can result in significant energy loss, potentially leading to a system failure. It is equally true that without friction there is no traction, and without traction, we can’t build momentum. The challenge is to find the balance between productive and unproductive friction.

Our ‘anxious interest’ validates a child’s self-doubt

‘Anxious interest’ for our child’s success is a good example of unproductive friction. Our love for our children and our desire to help them find success makes us anxious, especially when they are facing a challenge or they can’t find motivation. It is not wrong or unusual to experience anxiety for our children’s well-being, particularly when they are struggling to find success in important areas of their lives. When we allow ourselves to be carried away by the fear that our children will not find the future success we wish for them, problems begin.

Our fear then reflects on the child’s own fears — 'Am I good enough?' 'Will I be successful?' 'Am I loveable?' The child senses our anxiety and this only validates his self-doubt and fear of failure. It overshadows all other messages we intend to communicate to the child.

Facts versus assumptions

First, there are the facts, which is what happened. Then, as parents, there are the assumptions we make or the internal stories we tell ourselves. Similarly, the child makes his own assumptions and has his own stories.

These internal stories are our interpretation of the facts, but in reality, they are narratives that can be productive or unproductive. Unproductive stories are those that take us into the future in the form of fear, as we imagine the worst-case scenario for our children, or those that take us into the past in the form of regret as we second-guess the choices we’ve made. A major source of our anxiety stems from these stories we tell ourselves.

How to show ‘unanxious interest’

Learning to offer your child ‘unanxious interest’ helps you identify your own fears and emotional triggers. It helps you manage your emotions, rather than focus on ‘fixing’ the problems in your child. ‘Unanxious interest’ acknowledges a child’s fear and tells her that she is good enough, right now as she is, even though she is not perfect. It helps to shift her focus from the pressure to succeed to learning to manage the present moment. It invites her to have fun and improve and grow even as she faces the struggles.

The first step: Be aware of the internal stories and assumptions. This allows us to acknowledge that they only represent one interpretation of the facts.

The second step: Separate the facts of the situation from these stories. Our goal in step two is to check our interpretations of the facts.

The third step: Our goal should be to empathise and connect with the child by entering into conversations with a genuine sense of curiosity and a strong desire to understand and support.

Forging a meaningful connection with your child

As an educator who spent more than two decades working with parents of students in crisis and as a parent of four teenagers, I know how difficult it is to practise ‘unanxious interest’. With awareness and intentional effort, we can strengthen this ability. We need to recognise when we are being swept away by an anxious interest that can cause a rupture in our relationship. If we are aware that we are responding unproductively, and understand that this is a common human response, we can shift our attention to helping our children find solutions through ‘unanxious interest’. By using the ‘fact-story-ask’ framework, we can model effective communication and forge an authentic, accurate, and meaningful connection with our children, thus laying the foundation for self-confidence, healthy decision-making, and problem-solving

Modelling effective communication

Scenario A

Your child is struggling in Maths, which used to be her favourite subject. She repeatedly forgets to bring home assignments and doesn’t begin studying or doing her homework until the last minute.

Why You Shouldn’t Show ‘Anxious Interest’ In Your Child

Here’s how you can effectively converse with your child:

Fact (Intention: To feel calm, to be non-judgmental as you share the facts)

“Your current standing in Maths is a D, and you are half-way through the term. Your teacher tells me you are not turning in your assignments on time and I don’t see you studying at home. When I ask you if you are done with your homework, you say 'yes'.”

Story (Intention: To feel compassion, to be clear and concise as you share your story)

“You started out the year saying things were going to be great. But you seem to be getting more and more discouraged and disengaged in Maths. It seems like you have given up.”

Ask (Intention: To feel optimistic, to be curious as you seek understanding)

“How do you feel about the way things are going?”

“If you’re not happy with the way things are going what do you think needs to change?”

“You always used to love Maths, what do you think has changed?”

“How do you feel when you have to attend Maths class and do your assignments?”

“If you notice that you are scared of going to Maths class, what do you think is the source of that fear?”

“Do you think you need some extra help to help you understand Maths better?”

Scenario B

Your child loses interest easily or quits activities like sports or other hobbies as soon as he encounters criticism or failure.

Why You Shouldn’t Show ‘Anxious Interest’ In Your Child

Here’s how you can effectively converse with your child:

Fact (Intention: To feel calm, to be non-judgmental as you share the facts)

“The other day, during the game, when the other team started to win, you got upset with your teammate and asked the coach to take you out of the game. You didn’t utter a word on the ride back home and you didn’t go for practice the next day.”

Story (Intention: To feel compassion, to be clear and concise as you share your story)

“It seems like when things don’t go your way or the game gets harder, you get frustrated and lose interest and want to quit. It appears to me that if you don’t win, you feel like you are not good enough. You think that if you were really good, you wouldn’t have to work so hard.”

Ask (Intention: To feel optimistic, to be curious as you seek understanding)

“Is that how you feel? Help me understand your feelings.”

“When you first started playing your sport you really seemed to enjoy it. Am I right?”

“What was it that you enjoyed the most while playing? How has that changed for you?”

“If there was a way you could still experience that enjoyment, will you continue to explore?”

“It’s OK to feel upset when things don’t go the way you hope, but can you see the value of learning how to manage those feelings in a way that lets you keep working hard towards your goal?”

Joseph Holtgreive is the assistant dean and director of engineering personal development at Mccormick school of engineering at Northwestern University, USA.

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