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With an estimated one-in-five Americans living with an anxiety disorder, the feelings of panic, unease and stress are all-too common for many of us. And that is especially true among women, who are 60 percent more likely experience anxiety disorders during their lifetimes than men, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.


Parents who personally know the weight of anxiety may worry their children will grow to endure similar burdens. But, thankfully, there is new research that shows we may actually be able to play very big roles in raising a less anxious generation of women.

In her new book, On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, author Andrea Petersen notes there is a lot of support for the theory that the way we treat girls versus boys during childhood is directly linked to the discrepancy in rates of anxiety between women and men.

Tellingly, science suggests infant boys are more anxious than baby girls—but the opposite is true by the age of two.

As for why that could be, Peterson points in her book to a body of research that found boys are more likely to be raised to be independent while girls aren’t given this same kind of encouragement.

When a similar question about why women are more anxious than men plagued Barbara Morrongiello, a professor of psychology at the University of Guelph, she followed up on a hunch that began when she was on maternity leave herself: While spending time at playgrounds with her son, she noticed moms seemed to be encouraging the boys to play while cautioning the girls to be careful.

Morrongiello and a colleague later conducted a study of kids and parents on playgrounds and her hunch proved correct: While the little boys and girls were equally as capable of negotiating the playground equipment, mothers supported independence in the boys and stressed caution to the girls.

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In another research project, Morrongiello and her team looked at school-age kids, and found that when boys and girls were asked to access activities for potential danger, the girls perceived things as riskier than boys did.

It is true that little boys experience take more tumbles and experience more injuries than girls. But, the research of Morrongiello and others suggests that while stressing caution for little girls is protecting them physically, teaching them that the world is dangerous may contribute to anxiety.

Another study Petersen notes in her new book comes out of the University of California at Berkeley, where researchers videotaped kids and parents while the tots were playing with sand toys. Researchers found that when the boys asserted themselves, parents were likely to praise them. When the girls did the same, parents interrupted or ignored them.

According to Petersen, parents may want to consider encouraging more independence in our girl children—as research supports the idea that when we hover and help less often, our kids learn to stand on their own and feel more in control.

One final, big thing we can also do: Get help for our own anxieties, as our kids tend to model our behaviors. And by trying to address these problems today, we may be able to avoid many of them tomorrow.

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