The Paradox of the Anxious Parent

by Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D.

 Four years ago, when I spoke at an American Camp Association regional conference, a camp director approached me after my speech. "Can you help me?" he asked.

"I need to know what to say to parents who are worried about the free period at my camp. We've always had an hour and a half after lunch when boys (it was an all-boys camp) could roam the grounds of the camp or go off into the woods if they wanted to. Our only requirement was that if they are in the woods, they are accompanied by a friend. Now, however," he went on to say, with frustration in his voice, "We have parents who don't want us to let boys go off into the woods. They think it is dangerous. They don't want us to let the children out of our sight."

"What are they scared of?" I asked him.

"I don't really know," he replied.

"Have there been any accidents; did a boy fall from a tree; has anyone ever gotten lost?"

"No, never . . . nothing like that," was his answer. "But what do I say to the parents? How can I reassure them? We don't want to stop letting children go into the woods alone. We think that is an important part of the summer experience for them."

I absolutely agreed with his view that alone time for children in the outdoors is absolutely precious. I also had trouble imagining what real event his worried parents feared. Did they think that bears would eat their boys? Were they afraid the boys might climb trees and fall from them? Did they think that trees would fall on them? If you think about it carefully, the risks to boys walking in the woods are probably significantly smaller than the risks to boys on a football or soccer field, or to boys crossing busy urban streets.

What I had no problem imagining was his anxious parents. I am all too familiar with them. As a psychological consultant to both independent and public schools over the last twenty-five years, I have seen a steady rise in parent worry over that time. Indeed, more and more of my time in schools is spent responding to parental anxiety or training teachers to manage worried parents. My most-requested teacher workshop is on the subject of "Dealing with Difficult Parents," and I co-wrote a guide for the National Association of Independent Schools entitled Understanding Independent School Parents.

I hasten to say that the majority of parents I hear about are completely manageable. With a generous heart, some goodwill, a phone call or meeting and, perhaps, some new information about the child, the vast majority—up to 95 percent—of parents can be reassured by their children's teachers and educators. In my workshops, however, I have learned that classroom teachers are being deluged with e-mails from a minority of parents who find their child's ordinary journey through the school year creates such feelings of concern in them that they need constant contact with other adults to alleviate their sense of helplessness.

It is not unusual for a third-grade teacher in an independent school to have triple the amount of contact with parents than she had twenty years ago and to have almost daily contact with one child's mother over the course of an entire year. That can mean one hundred and fifty e-mails between a teacher and just one parent. And if a child has genuine difficulties—for example, a learning disability—it can unleash a cascade of e-mails from home. Last August, when I was conducting my parents' workshop at a school in Colorado, I learned of the mother of a struggling child with a learning disability who had written approximately five e-mails per day to teachers or administrators every day of the previous school year, for a total of over six hundred e-mails! In my mind, that was a record, but when I mentioned this extreme case to some administrators in Los Angeles, they said, "Oh, we've had a couple of parents like that."

I hope no camp in America has received five calls or e-mails per day from a parent, and if it has, I trust that the director invited the parents to come up and fetch their child. School is mandatory; camp is not. Why would a camp keep a child when it was making a parent so anxious to have him or her there? However, it is not just these extreme cases that camp directors need to address. In general, parents are contacting camps far more frequently than in the past to talk to their children, to obtain information about their offspring, to express concern about aspects of the program, and sometimes to try to influence events at camp. For better or for worse, parents want more contact with their children at camp. No, they don't just want more contact—they need more contact. If the leading psychological problem that camps have traditionally addressed in the past is the homesickness of campers, it is now the "childsickness" of parents.

Camps have responded to this parental need in a variety of ways. In addition to the traditional visiting days for parents, they are publishing online newsletters more frequently than in the past; they have office personnel trained to handle a higher volume of parent calls before and during camp sessions; counselors are writing more reports that go home; and, perhaps most obviously, camps are uploading hundreds, even thousands, of photos onto their Web sites so that parents can look in and vicariously share their child's camp experience. One mother said to me with great pleasure in her voice, "You can almost see your child every day at camp!" What that means, of course, is that some counselor is constantly toting a camera around and spending evening time with Photoshop—but if it helps to allay parent worries and increase parental trust in the camp, perhaps it is time well spent.

What can a psychologist contribute to this situation? I want to address three questions: First, why are contemporary middleclass and upper-middle-class parents so anxious? Two, why do they need, or think they need, so much contact with their kids at school and camp? And finally, what can be done to reassure them so that they can allow their children to enjoy camp on their own? From my point of view, the difficulty we have in reassuring some parents stems from the paradoxical nature of their anxieties. As in the case with the family who wanted their son's camp to stop allowing boys to enjoy an hour and a half of free time in the woods, parent fears are rarely about real things that might happen to children in the woods. They are an expression of the psychological dilemmas in which modern parents find themselves trapped. I have tried to sum up these dilemmas as four paradoxes.

Paradox 1: The Paradox of Control

The more control you have in your life, the less able you are to turn control over to someone else and the less practice you get managing feelings of helplessness. American middle-class and upper-middle-class parents, often the very people who send their children to summer camps, have unprecedented levels of control over their children. From the start of their infant's lives, they have little radios in their rooms to overhear their cries; some families even have cameras installed in the nursery. Today's suburban children rarely walk to school; instead, they are driven to school by their parents. Parents never have to develop trust in either the safety of the bus situation (physical or social) or in the resilience of their children.

When an independent school in New York made a rule that children in elementary school could not have cell phones, one mother said to me, "I don't care what the school says. My child is going to have a cell phone in her backpack equipped with a GPS device, and it is going to be on." I could only describe her tone of voice as grimly determined. It was a war for control, and she could not bear the idea that she could not track her child through a Global Positioning System. How differently the mother would have reacted had her child walked twenty minutes to school without a cell phone. She would have developed confidence in her child's judgment and resilience; her fears about "what might happen" would have been assuaged by the daily return of her child from school.

Too much control over their children's whereabouts and lack of experience with their children being out of sight mean that many parents are not ready for the shock of camp. Traditionally, the departure of a child for a sleep-away camp has, in many families, been the first sustained separation between parent and child. But usually that first big step away from home has followed on the heels of many smaller separations such as walking to school. Without those intermediate separations, the departure for camp can be a huge blow to a parent's sense of control. Therefore, a parent may be working through feelings of loss and helplessness at the same time that his or her child is also recovering from homesickness.

Paradox 2: The Paradox of Choice

One might think that the more choices people have in life, the happier they would be with the final choice they make, because they are really getting what they want. Exactly the opposite is true. In a brilliant little book called The Paradox of Choice, the psychologist Barry Schwartz has synthesized all of the research on choice-making, and the results are clear: the more choices you have, the less satisfied you will be with your final pick. Even if you bought that BMW, you'll keep wondering if you should have gotten the Mercedes or the Audi, especially if you have to take that BMW in for repairs earlier than you imagined.

And so it is with your child's camp. If Schwartz is right—and my work with independent school parents involved in the college admissions process has absolutely persuaded me he is—any camp director can expect that a parent who has gone to the American Camp Association Web site and looked into ten different camps for his daughter and triumphantly picked your camp, will continue to wonder—and doubt—that he made the right choice. Therefore, when something goes wrong for his child, he may immediately assume that your camp was not, after all, the right one, and he picks up the phone. Hard as it is for us to accept, parents might be happier if they only had a choice of two camps rather than two hundred! In the age of the Internet, I am not proposing that we deprive people of information and choice; they expect it, and camp directors need to provide it. However, I don't want anyone to hold the illusion that all of these choices make people happier. They do not; many thoughtful people are left with nagging doubts.

Paradox 3: The Paradox of Information (and Advocacy)

The modern, on-the-job parent believes that advocacy is an important part of parenting and feels strongly that the more he or she knows about his or her child's school or camp journey, the better that journey will be. Sometimes that is true, because a parent can help with a problem. However, much of the time this isn't true, but it is difficult for caring parents to admit to themselves that all the information they have about their child is of very little use to their child. To illustrate that, I have taken to asking audiences composed of parents two questions. The first question is, "How much did your mother know about your day in high school?" I then ask them to put a number, a percentage to it. The reaction to my question is usually laughter, then people call out, "Zero . . . nothing . . . 10 percent." Sometimes a person says, "I tried as hard as I could to keep my mother from knowing much about my day." That's the truth of adolescence.

My second question to parents is: "If she had known a lot more about your day in school, would that have made any difference in how things turned out for you?" People shake their heads from side to side. No, indeed, there is not much your father could have done for you had he known about: 1) the grumpy teacher; 2) the rotten group of popular kids; and 3) your discomfort with changing your clothes in public before P.E. or anything else weird about school.

Much of the school experience, whether good, bad, or indifferent, just has to be lived through. Parents cannot change the nature of the journey, no matter how much they know about what is happening to their child. That's true of camp as well. What if a mother learns that her son consistently chooses woodworking over kayaking at a water sports camp? What is she supposed to do? What if a girl's father learns that she has given up horseback riding for sailing? What then? (Both these decisions were made by my children at their respective camps. I was annoyed about the horseback riding choice, because we'd paid an extra fee for it, but my daughter really loved sailing. What's a dad to do?)

Paradox 4: The Paradox of the "Great" Parent

If you really work at your parenting—if you have a clear idea of what a "great" parent should be—does that help you achieve your goal of being a super parent? Yes and no. Parenting is a tough job, and it helps if people love their children and work at it; however, all the effort in the world doesn't earn someone an "A" in parenting. There is no such thing as a final grade in parenting; there is no finish line. For example, a mother who did a brilliant job of arranging play-dates for her five-year-old may find her daughter is furious with her for being too involved in her social life when she is in sixth grade, and that same daughter may appreciate her mother's advice about problems with a boyfriend in college but resent her mother's suggestions about the way she arranges the grandchildren's social lives. It never ends.

Those of us who work with parents in a professional capacity are keenly aware that we are serving a thoughtful, loving generation of parents. We should never dismiss the depth of parental dedication. (Speaking personally, I appreciate them because they buy parenting books.) We also see many moms and dads who are extraordinarily anxious, self-conscious, and guilty. We see many well-intentioned parents getting in their own way. And so it is with parents who are calling the camp office all the time. Their efforts to improve their child's summer experience are rarely helpful. A great camp experience is never the result of great parental effort.

Allow me to repeat that: A great camp experience is never the result of great parental effort.

A great summer camp experience occurs when a child is ready to be away from his or her family, goes to a well-run camp, meets a friend on the first day, meets a counselor he or she really likes, takes on some challenges, and succeeds in mastering many of them. Does that sound familiar? It should. That's camp.

And let's be honest. A summer camp experience is always, by definition, away from home and parents, either for the day, a week, a month, or eight weeks. That is part of the magic of camp. You are not with your parents. I have known children whose parents work for the camp they attend. Would anyone dispute my conclusion that a child's best moments at camp are away from parents, even if only 200 yards away? (Your mother or father watching you do something does not always add that much to the experience. Sometimes you like achieving something away from your parents, so you know that the triumph is really yours.)

What to Do! How then do camp administrators reassure anxious parents who become over-anxious about having their child away from them, out of their control, where they cannot know and monitor everything? Camp administrators must do seven things for worried parents. Four of these suggestions are so obvious, I am embarrassed to list them; three of them are for the super-anxious parents and may be less obvious to veteran administrators.

  1. When parents call for the first or second time, listen to their worries and acknowledge them. "Oh…yes…of course. Naturally you are worried. I can hear how concerned you are. I'm glad you called me. You should never worry alone." A parent may just need reassurance that someone is willing to listen to his or her anxieties — proof that someone is there for both their child and for the parents.
  2. Ask for specific details about their fears. Don't accept vague, global characterizations of the child's feelings or of the camp culture ("She's so unhappy." "Nothing is working out for him." "There's so much bullying there.") Gently force parents to be specific: "Could you tell me exactly what your daughter said in her phone call with you?" "What did the other girl say to her?" "Are you saying that your son has not enjoyed anything at all?"
  3. Provide information and perspective without contradicting the parent's fears. "I'm sorry to hear that your son says he has no friends. That's painful to hear, but I have to admit I'm surprised, because I saw him playing Frisbee with a group last night before dinner. He was laughing last night before dinner." If you don't have the information, pledge to get it from the counselor who knows the child best and call the parent back with the report. Information is going to calm down the vast majority of parents.
  4. Be honest if a child is having an unhappy experience. Don't gild the lily and make the parent your consultant and ally. "Yes, we're also seeing that she's miserable. Nothing we've tried seems to help. We have a few more things we want to try, but in any case, we need to make a plan together for the next few days." If you are not honest about a child having a bad time, you can never sort out whether a parent's fears are rational or irrational.
  5. When parents call with a manifestly irrational complaint, or are calling for the fourth or fifth time, give the parent feedback on his or her behavior. "Really? We've never had a complaint like that before," or "You know, we've talked about this four times before, and I tried to reassure you . . . ." Or, "I really want to reassure you because you are the most worried parent we have this summer." Though it sounds rude to say, some parents need to hear that their behavior is different from the vast majority of parents. In an extremely anxious parent's mind, every great, loving parent is calling the way he or she is. They need some specific feedback – some of what psychologists call "reality testing."
  6. Ask the hyper-anxious parent in so many words if you are ever going to be able to reassure him or her. "I have been trying to reassure you for two weeks that Suzie is having a good summer, but I don't feel as if I have been effective at all. Do you think I am ever going to be able to reassure you?" This is sometimes the metaphorical slap in the face that an almosthysterical parent needs.
  7. Suggest that there is no way that you can serve a child whose parent is so worried and mistrustful. Tell them to gas up the car and come fetch their child because, in fact, a child cannot really have a good experience when his or her parents are so miserable. Perhaps, if you send the child home, the parents will allow their child to have a good camp experience somewhere else, another year.

By the end of summer, of course, when children arrive home, the majority of parents see what happens to their children who have been away from them. They grow; they're stronger, more independent, and excited about the skills they have developed. One mother wrote the following to her child's camp director that her son had come home, "an integrated, whole person, thinking well of himself and feeling confident."

Camps can almost guarantee that girls and boys will come home feeling more confident and more grown-up at the end of a summer. It is always helpful to children when their parents can trust both the camp and their children's development and sad when they cannot.

Schwartz, B. (2005). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Harper Perennial, New York, NY.

Thompson, M. and Mazzola, A. F. (2006). Understanding Independent School Parents: An NAIS Guide. National Association of Independent Schools.

Michael Thompson, Ph.D., is a psychologist and camp consultant. He is the coauthor of Raising Cain, The Pressured Child, and the soon-to-be released It's a Boy: Understanding Your Son's Development From Birth to Eighteen.

Originally published in the 2008 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.