When you have a newborn, especially if it’s your first baby, no one expects it to be easy.
During those early (and frequent) pediatric newborn visits and postpartum ob-gyn visits, you are screened for postpartum depression and anxiety. Friends and family offer food, support and babysitting services. Everyone assumes that you have been up all night, so you are forgiven for any regrettable actions taken while in a sleep-deprived haze. You are surrounded with support.
But when that baby becomes a toddler, expectations change. Doctors stop asking about depression and anxiety. Loved ones don’t check in as often, and offers of food and babysitting dry up. Many people assume (mostly incorrectly) that you are “finally” sleeping. Popular sentiment has it that once you’re out of the infant phase, you’re out of the woods.
I’m not quite sure where this assumption comes from, because as any mother of a toddler will tell you, the woods get thornier as your kids get older.
Anxiety, in particular, often grows with your child. When you have an infant, you have complete control over that child’s every move. The child can’t walk or talk and can only eat breast milk or formula. Parenting expectations are clear (feed the kid, bathe the kid, let the kid sleep.) When children become mobile and start eating solids and then eventually walking and talking, they are considerably more difficult to control and parenting tasks are no longer as clear-cut.
Loss of control and unclear expectations can serve as fodder for anxiety. Many moms of toddlers find themselves feeling overwhelmed and without adequate support to help them manage it.
If you’re one of these moms, here are some tips from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you cope.
1. Allow yourself to feel anxious.
It’s OK to be worried and stressed. It doesn’t mean you aren’t happy to be a mother or appreciative of what you have. Not acknowledging your anxiety or pressuring yourself to “snap out of it” will only make the anxiety worse.
2. Schedule worry time.
Try scheduling some “worry time” into your day. Devote that time to worrying about everything that’s bothering you. You can write the worries down in a journal or say the worries out loud.
If any of the worries lend themselves to problem solving, think through how you will solve the problem (i.e. you worry about your child’s cough, which inspires you to make a doctor’s appointment for him.) If you have a worry outside of your “worry time” (which, of course, you will) acknowledge that worry and recognize that you will spend more time with it when worry time comes around.
3. Make time for yourself.
When I suggest that my stressed mom patients regularly do things to care for themselves (like take a walk, get a manicure, binge watch a show, etc.), they often tell me they consider doing such things to be “selfish”—another widely held belief about mothers that isn’t reflective of reality.
If you want to effectively take care of your kids, you have to take care of yourself. Even taking 15 minutes out of your day to do something for yourself can boost your energy and mood and give you stamina for the toddler dramas of the day.
4. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness exercises can help you learn to focus more effectively on the present moment and recognize that your anxious thoughts are just thoughts, not truths. There are a number of mindfulness apps that make practice easy. Calm and Headspace are two apps that are popular among my patients.
5. Watch out for avoidance.
Often, when we’re anxious about something, we avoid the thing(s) that trigger the anxiety. But this can become problematic when you’re a parent and have obligations you have to meet. For example, a mom who avoids driving because she’s afraid of a car accident faces a real challenge when her toddler has to be dropped off at daycare on a busy street.
It’s important to try to face your fears, rather than allowing avoidance to keep you from doing what you need (and want) to do. Furthermore, parents who avoid things often have kids who avoid things, since kids tend to model their behaviors on those of their parents. Instead of avoiding, model effective coping for your kids by letting them witness you facing your fears head-on.
6. Beware the Internet.
So many moms turn to the Internet when they have anxiety about something. But the Internet can be an unreliable (and even dangerous) source of information, as many websites contain unverified and inaccurate information. Make sure you stick to reputable websites if you’re seeking advice, and don’t be afraid to reach out to your pediatrician or your own doctor with questions about your health or your child’s health.
7. Ask for help.
Many moms with whom I work took a long time to come to me, believing that they were supposed to “soldier through” the toddler years. This is another idea whose origins are unclear and whose merits are lacking. Moms need to know that the early years are tough and that they don’t need to endure them alone.
Seeking help from a therapist, support group, religious leader, or even like-minded friends and family members can be extremely beneficial for moms.