What Moms Say About Maternal Anxiety – Psychology Today | Team Cansler

By Grant H. Brenner

Motherhood is arguably the most important job on the planet. It seems that we do not fully understand how important the development and education of children and young people is to the future well-being of mankind – if we did, mothers and teachers might be the most supported endeavors. Not to mention supporting mental health in general, which is increasingly being recognized as an unmet need and imminent public health emergency.

Therefore, understanding material anxiety is crucial to improve individual support and to identify and address systemic factors that may contribute to maternal stress, anxiety, and depression.

interview mothers

To this end, researchers Prikhidko and colleagues conducted qualitative research on maternal anxiety, which was published in Journal of Maternal and Child Health (2022). Anxiety is high during the perinatal period, and women generally experience high rates of anxiety. Recent work shows that anxiety disorders affect up to 27 percent of mothers — and that children born to mothers with anxiety disorders are significantly more likely to have anxiety themselves, with mothers with generalized anxiety or social phobia being the hardest hit.

Instead of collecting statistics using standardized rating scales and deriving correlations and significant data, the interviewers in the current study used a structured approach to qualitative research. This study is part of a larger effort to develop a maternal anxiety (MA) rating scale; The derivation of common core concerns forms a basis for the development of quantitative indicators.

Qualitative studies are based on intensive interviews with a smaller group of relevant participants and follow a methodology designed to extract common, reliable themes of broad relevance. In this work, MA was studied in 17 mothers from different cultural backgrounds using semi-structured interviews ranging in duration from 30 to 60 minutes.

‘Cognitive interviews’ were conducted to explore not only issues but also the underlying thought processes, including being instructed to imagine a fear-provoking situation (e.g. a school shooting) and to think aloud.

4 factors surrounding maternal anxiety

The themes from each individual interview were clustered and coded, reviewed until ‘saturation’ was reached (when no new themes emerged), and grouped into four overarching factors described in the context of maternal anxiety.

1. Maternal insecurities and social comparison

Mothers expressed self-doubt and questioned their desire and motivation to be a good mother. They described social pressure to conform to motherhood ideals and fear of failure. Respondents questioned its effectiveness, for example: “I worry a lot, and I know many other mothers who worry, am I doing the right thing? Am I meeting their needs? Am I a good mom?” and “Should I do more if someone is really good at something?”.

With all the parenting advice online, moms have reported confusion about what’s best. Social media has been seen as a driver of comparison anxiety, as mothers read about other families online and sometimes find they fall short. The social media amping extended to kids too — while moms felt their kids were enough, they were also aware that the way others viewed them could have a negative impact.

2. Balance between dependency and autonomy

Mothers reported fears that children would become more independent over time. They worried about certain things, such as their children learning to drive or that they would otherwise be vulnerable if they weren’t watched by keen eyes. Children face many dangers as they enter puberty – including accidents, assault, drugs and alcohol, along with a range of other factors that become uncontrollable as children become more autonomous and independent.

Mothers were particularly concerned about not being able to control how others treat their children – for example in dating situations and with negative influences from unknown peers. Mothers feared their children would not exercise good judgment or self-control, engage in the wrong crowd, or make other poor decisions with potentially lasting consequences.

3. Cultural considerations

The third factor highlights differences expressed by mothers as a function of privilege versus social oppression. Racism was a major source of concern for mothers from discriminated groups, who had concerns about basic safety, physical and mental health, including fears that children would be marginalized and lonely because of the sight of them.

In general, the concern that their children might be perceived as different was stronger in multiethnic families. Mothers also expressed concern about the socioeconomic pressures when money was tight, as well as prejudice and how it would affect others, as well as opportunities and social status.

4. Dealing with fear

The final theme focused on how mothers deal with fear for themselves and their children. Openness to challenges such as physical injuries and developmental differences has been described as a useful way to “normalize” parenting experiences and reduce anxiety, reflecting a degree of acceptance that things happen and that we cannot control everything. Mothers also reported that knowing their own anxiety could negatively impact children and motivate them to learn to calm down.

Many mothers have described religious belief as helpful in coping, including surrendering to the divine will and using prayer as well as suppression and distraction to cope. At the same time as they have relinquished control when children were not under their care, mothers also reported being more observant when they were together.

Some worried about passing on family problems, whether it be a medical risk of illness or emotional/psychological problems. One mother said, “I don’t like to blame him for my experiences because I’m trying to break through the generational trauma.”

Address maternal fears effectively

This work highlights known concerns and distills them into four main themes reported by a diverse group of mothers as part of a larger effort to define a reliable maternal anxiety rating scale. Developing greater awareness of the challenges mothers face and how mothers think and cope is important for both public health initiatives and the development of more effective individual and family support. On average, when mothers are better off, their children are better off too.

It is important to look at different coping styles, what works well and what can lead to escalation of stress in order to design effective training and interventions. Research shows that parents can and do transmit trauma to their children through specific dysregulated attachment behaviors (e.g., characterized by uncontrolled hostility and despair when they feel helpless; learning to self-regulate and doing the deeper work required can accelerate the transmission cycle break between generations.

Parents learn to provide affirmation, constructive self-talk to increase self-esteem, effective calming skills, and related coping approaches designed to build resilience based on growth and problem-solving attitudes. Research suggests that authoritative parenting works best, compared to authoritarian, permissive, and permissive parenting styles, which are associated with a greater risk of children’s future problems, including a greater likelihood of becoming involved in emotionally abusive relationships with adults devices. Recognizing the everyday anatomy of fear on an individual basis creates the conditions for targeted help.1

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