Whether you’re a first-time parent or a fourth – pregnancy, childbirth, and all the lifestyle changes that come with having a new baby can bring on a wide range of emotional distress.
While bringing a new life into the world is a huge milestone for many people, it is – even under ideal circumstances – incredibly stressful.
Hormonal changes after labor, sleep deprivation, and negative self-talk can all lead to a roller coaster of mental health challenges many new moms (and dads) face.
Even after the newborn stage, struggles with mental health can continue to persist, and often parents feel an overwhelming amount of guilt and shame for it.
This stigma continues to hide these suffering parents in the dark.
Approximately 68% of moms and 57% of dads struggle with mental health, with challenges ranging from anxiety to severe postpartum psychosis.
However, over the years, psychologists and doctors have made incredible strides when it comes to starting the conversation around parent mental health.
In this article, we will discuss these parental struggles and how to start overcoming them.
When you become a parent, you’re suddenly bombarded by unwanted advice. Everywhere you turn – social media, magazines, books, friends, family members, and even strangers are asking you questions.
Is he sleeping through the night?
Are you sure he’s gaining enough weight?
Are you sure he isn’t gaining TOO much weight?
Are you breastfeeding? Why not?
You put a blanket in his crib with him? You know that’s completely unsafe, right?
This overwhelming wave of sudden questions, fears, and worries is enough to make anyone go mad.
However, when new moms are in a fragile state already with their unbalanced hormones and lack of sleep, this can be detrimental.
These fears can turn from normal concerns to panic, and they can last for years into parenthood.
Let’s look at the 4 most common ways how parental anxiety manifests: excessive worrying, over-protecting behaviors, catastrophizing, and separation anxiety.
Many times, excessive worrying can be rooted in an unstable childhood experienced by either parent, a history of anxiety or other mental health diagnoses, or past traumatic events. In addition, these over-the-top worries ranging anywhere from environmental to emotional factors are on a constant loop.
Here are the most common reasons why new parents are feeling anxious:
- Developmental milestones: Seen as the most common type of fear in new parents, often parents with anxiety will obsess over whether their child is meeting “normal standards.”
- Social well-being: Does my child have enough friends? Should I send them to daycare? Should I keep them at home with me? Many times, anxiety in parents can manifest as worry of what the parent can “do better” to enhance their children's social life.
- Bonding with the baby: As difficult as it is to come to terms with, it is perfectly normal not to instantly bond with your new baby immediately. 20% of new parents don’t feel any connection with their baby after birth. This can cause guilt and excessive anxiety; however, with consistent effort, it goes away with time.
- Health: Over the top worry about a child's sleeping habits, eating routines, coughs, runny nose, rashes, etc., all can easily consume a new parent with anxiety.
- Safety: Excessive worry in this area can show up as obsessively researching ways the baby could be harmed, constantly checking to make sure the baby is breathing, and imagining worst-case scenarios if the baby were to encounter any even slightly dangerous situation.
How to cope with it
With this overwhelming amount of worry, it can feel isolating. However, there are ways to cope.
- Conversations with your partner: Simply talking and expressing how you’re feeling can be a great stress reliever. Letting out what has been weighing heavily on your mind can ease some of the anxiety held within.
- Conversations with other parents: Talking to someone who has experienced this new, unfamiliar stage before can give you insight that others simply can’t. In addition, being able to hear success stories of how other parents have overcome this type of parental anxiety can be inspirational.
- Conversations with a therapist: Online therapy is a fantastic tool for many new parents as it doesn’t require the hassle of packing the baby up and leaving the house. For new parents who have anxiety about being in public, this is an invaluable tool to take advantage of.
Behaviors of Shielding and Avoidance
Parental anxiety may come across as an “overprotective parent” – constantly aiming to prevent their child from ever coming in contact with a negative situation.
Most of the time, these parents have the best intentions to protect their children but fail to see how their behavior may cause the child to inadvertently become fearful of the outside world.
Shielding behaviors are explained as parents taking extreme preventative actions to shelter their child from stressful, uncomfortable, or fearful situations.
Avoidance behaviors, on the other hand, are more often linked to actions taken by parents to specifically remove a child from any situation that is – or potentially could be – problematic.
These actions hinder the day-to-day life and well-being of both the parent and child and can make them both feel like prisoners in their own home.
If you are not sure whether you are being overprotective, there are some common signs:
- Intentionally removing the child from any potentially negative situation
- Solely focusing on dangers
- Controlling all activities
- Micromanaging friendships or environments
- Restricting the child from activities normal to their age
How to cope with it
If you find yourself or your partner exhibiting these behaviors, know that there are ways to cope and overcome this type of anxiety:
- Acceptance: The first step to overcoming any type of mental health struggle is to accept there is a problem that needs fixing. It does not mean you’re broken; it means it is time to learn something new or reach out for help.
- Find ways to relax: Whether it’s exercise, meditation, reading, listening to music, or hiking, taking time to relax will help you keep your worries under control.
- Therapy: Talking to a professional will help you find the most effective ways to cope with your worries and face challenges as a parent. Online therapy has become one of the best resources for parents with anxiety. From the comfort and safety of your own home, an online therapist can talk through any fears or worries you may have to understand the root cause and create a treatment plan for overcoming it.
- Exposure: An extremely successful type of therapy many psychologists use in clients with phobias or anxiety is exposure therapy. Start by taking baby steps, and each day, increase your exposure to whatever fear is hindering your life. Conquering fear successfully is done best head-on.
Catastrophizing means jumping to irrational conclusions.
Taking a situation of average or even slightly problematic outcomes is often immediately perceived as the worst-case scenario, usually involving harm or death.
Parents with catastrophic thinking often create an exaggerated narrative in their head, automatically assuming a situation is far worse than it actually is.
This extreme level of thinking then manifests into excessive behaviors to control or avoid such an outcome.
How to cope with it
- Self-care: Taking care of yourself by ensuring healthy sleeping patterns and eating habits can drastically change the way your brain operates. Parents aren’t thinking clearly when they are sleep-deprived.
- Changing your thoughts: Noticing your irrational thoughts and taking time to change them to something more possible is the main way to deal with it. It’s a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
- Therapy: Changing your thinking patterns can take more mental health resources than you have. But with the guidance of a therapist, you can develop coping mechanisms to prevent and control excessive negative thoughts. Your therapy will include keeping a record of intrusive thoughts, restructuring thinking patterns, relaxation and stress management techniques. This type of therapy is particularly helpful because not only does it empower the client to take control of their own mind, but it provides them with the tools they need to cope on their own when catastrophic thoughts do begin to form.
- Online therapy: Parents who suffer from anxiety and catastrophic thinking often need help right at the moment – something that in-person therapy can’t do. Given that it is within a therapist's working hours, most online therapy platforms allow messaging between a client and their therapist.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Many children at different stages of development go through periods of separation anxiety from their parents. This is completely normal and is part of healthy development in babies.
Parents, while less common, can also suffer from separation anxiety.
The strong bond formed between a parent and child is an incredible thing. However, if parents with separation anxiety feel as though that bond is being threatened, it can cause overwhelming amounts of anxiety.
Parents who struggle with separation anxiety can fear as though the bond with their child will be broken if they take any time away from them. This can be as simple as a day at daycare to taking a (well deserved) vacation.
Unfortunately, children are particularly skilled at picking up on their parents’ emotions, and if a parent is experiencing high levels of anxiety, it can make the child more resistant to saying goodbye.
How to cope with it
- Face your fears: This can mean addressing exactly what outcome you’re afraid of and becoming aware of why you may feel this way. Write them down and get them out onto paper.
- Confide in others: Expressing your fears and anxiety with friends or family can not only give those closest to you insight on how to help but can assist you in letting those fears go.
- Therapy: Parents with anxiety may struggle to do anything for themselves for fear of having to leave the child with a babysitter or daycare. Therapists can help to get rid of these worries step by step. Online therapy is a great way to start, as the parent can remain in close proximity to the child while from the comfort of their own home.
Other Common Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways. As we’ve previously discussed, it can appear in parents as parental anxiety marked by excessive worrying, avoiding certain situations, catastrophizing, and separation anxiety.
However, generalized and social anxiety disorders are both common types of anxiety among parents as well.
Addressing these problems is important because transmission of generalized and social anxiety disorders from parent to child is entirely possible and, unfortunately, does happen.
Children watch their parents verbalize fears and worries, and in turn, pick up on those anxious behaviors. This transmissioned anxiety can actually exacerbate a parent's own original anxiety.
Fortunately, while kids do unfortunately pick up on those anxious behaviors, they can also pick up on positive self-coping behaviors as well.
Let's take a closer look at these conditions.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Generalized anxiety disorder is defined as an overall extreme and uncontrollable amount of worrying about a wide variety of different situations.
Here are the symptoms to look for if you suspect that you have generalized anxiety:
- Excessive worry
- Inability to focus
- Heart palpitations
- Feeling “on edge”
- Muscle tension
How to cope with it
Generalized anxiety disorder is often treated via self-care, therapy, or medication.
Self-care consists of a healthy lifestyle, journaling and writing down your fears, breathing techniques or meditations, exposure to the situations you fear.
In cases where at-home care for GAD is not enough, therapy is an effective strategy to help clients with high levels of anxiety.
The most prominent method of therapy for generalized anxiety disorder is CBT. Briefly mentioned above, this type of therapy focuses on strengthening the client’s own coping skills.
Using talk therapy, CBT helps to manage symptoms of anxiety by changing the way a client thinks and behaves. This is done by exposing negative thinking patterns and addressing them head-on.
After a client acknowledges these anxiety-provoking thoughts, they are then trained on how to redirect them into positive thinking patterns.
With the rise of online therapy, new parents can address their mental health from their home without leaving their child with a babysitter. They can also schedule flexible online therapy sessions or talk with a therapist via messages anytime they have a free minute.
If you are considering medication, talk to your doctor so that they can make an accurate diagnosis and choose the right treatment for you.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
Social anxiety disorder is a type of anxiety caused by an extreme fear of social situations.
These situations are frequently normal everyday interactions; however, a parent with SAD may excessively fear that they will be humiliated, judged, ridiculed, or embarrassed.
This can cause the parent to completely avoid any social situation or interaction that may trigger these dreaded feelings.
Social anxiety disorder manifests in these symptoms:
- Fast heartbeat
- Upset stomach
- Rigid body language
- Trouble breathing
- “Blank” mind
How to cope with it
SAD coping mechanisms are quite similar to the ones mentioned in GAD. However, there are specific differences regarding the therapy part.
While CBT is an effective method of therapy for clients suffering from a social anxiety disorder, it is often combined with exposure therapy as well.
The goal of exposure therapy is to assist the client in gradually facing the situations they fear most.
When CBT and exposure therapy are used together, they work to address the client's excessive fears of social situations by talk therapy. After the client has stated their greatest worries, they are then encouraged to enter such feared environments.
When their fears do not come to fruition, the client is able to see how their anxieties are often irrational.
Anxiety and Depression
A staggering 85% of people suffering from anxiety also suffer from depression as well. Anxiety and depression are comorbid illnesses, meaning they often occur hand in hand.
As a parent, the burden of worry, fear, and anxiety can often be lonely. This loneliness can cause isolation and depression.
In addition, the loss of your own identity, hormonal changes, and the unfamiliar challenges and hardships many new moms face can cause postpartum depression.
1 in 5 children in the United States grows up in families where at least one parent suffers from depression. This extremely high rate of depression is an alarming statistic when you learn that parental depression is a risk factor for difficulties in a child’s later life.
Parents with anxiety and depression often don’t show as much emotion and interact with their children in less intentional ways, impacting the way a child perceives the world.
Not only can this greatly impact a parent-child relationship, but depression can also be transmitted from parent to child.
Passive parenting styles, lack of bonding, and lack of proper nurturing care can all set a child up for far more emotional difficulties in the future.
How to cope with it
When it comes to serious conditions like depression, often attempting to self-help only goes so far. While many of the above-mentioned tips can help, if you are struggling with anxiety and depression, reaching out for help is your best chance to feel better.
Finding a support system with a therapist can help you shed light on those negative thinking patterns that are enabling depression.
Together with the therapist, you can also address underlying causes or traumatic experiences that have led you to develop this disorder.
Treatment may take time, but the sooner you reach for help, the better it is.
Online counseling can encourage you to reach for help. It is a great option for parents – and anyone – suffering from mild to moderate depression and anxiety.
Depression can leave people unable to make it out of bed, let alone out of the house. With online therapy, you can meet your therapist exactly how you are without having to leave your home or attempt to pull yourself together.
In addition, online counseling may offer more flexible hours than in-person visits. This is extremely beneficial for parents who may only have free time in the early morning hours before work or late at night after the kids are in bed.
For severe cases, medication can be a necessary aid to continue living a normal life. Your doctor will decide on the medications that will be most suited for you. However, professionals agree that using it together with therapy is the most effective way to treat depression and anxiety.
Other Sources of Mental Distress
As we’ve discussed, many of the stressors that create anxiety for parents are related to their children. Their health, safety, and overall well-being can be an endless cycle of worries and fears with no relief.
However, not all causes of mental health struggles in parents are directly related to their children's growth. Here are some common triggers impacting the mental health of a parent:
- Money. This can be a severe trigger for anxiety and depression as parents worry about how their finances are going to cover the cost of their family safely for years to come. After the pandemic, many parents lost their source of income, or it was severely reduced, causing even more turmoil at home.
- Relationship with a partner. Trying to balance the old relationship with your partner and the new relationship with your baby can cause significant amounts of distress. This is particularly true if one of the partners is already suffering from anxiety or depression.
- The world. Intrusive thoughts related to what the state of society and the economy will be as their children grow up is a very real source of anxiety and stress for parents. As the world is quickly changing, parents may spend an excessive amount of time worrying about how to raise their child to cope with it.
While mental health has been stigmatized for centuries, we’ve just begun to understand the extreme impact generational trauma has on family members today.
Family issues related to mental health can be deep, long-lasting wounds that can only be healed from actively seeking assistance with trained professionals.
How to cope with it
Taking time to nurture your mental health is the best thing you can do to help yourself deal with life stressors. Adopting healthy habits, using relaxation techniques, and reaching for help from people closest to you will help you make sure you can handle challenges better.
Take Care of Your Mental Health
Many new moms suffer at the hands of postpartum depression, anxiety, and other mental health battles. Even if the life of a parent is already stressful, these struggles can make it hard to bear.
Seeking help on time is crucial for your mental health as well as for the one of your child. As parents, little eyes are watching day in and day out. Keeping yourself healthy mentally is the most selfless gift you can give to yourself and your child.
However, inserting therapy in the life of a new parent can be hardly possible. Online therapy can offer help generations before ours didn’t have. You can now access help from your own home and be able to have an unbiased support system there for you when you need it.
If you’re a parent and you feel like it’s time to step up and take care of your mental health, DoMental offers an online therapy service with licensed therapists waiting and ready to help.