Taming The Paper Tigers of Parenthood (How to Stop Being So Stressed & Worried)

Paper Tiger: someone or something that appears powerful or dangerous but is not

Imagine two early-human families living the grasslands.

Family #1 had a habit of thinking tigers were just outside their camp, even when they weren't.

Family #2 had a habit of thinking tigers were not just outside their camp, even when they were.

Which family lives to pass on its genes? Family #1, of course.

As a species, one of our greatest adaptations has been anticipating danger.

And so, our brains and bodies love the feeling (in the short term) of being constantly on the look out for potential harm. This habit is called hypervigilance.

But there's a downside to hypervigilance. Your brain and body weren't built to stay in that state for long periods of time, so you get exhausted, fog brained, short tempered, and irrational.

Then, if and when a real tiger shows up, you're already depleted and actually less able to think clearly and defend yourself effectively.

What works best is to discern the Paper Tigers from the Real Tigers.

To relax when there is no danger, nourish yourself physically and emotionally, so when there is, you have the resources you need to protect yourself and your family.

We live in a parenting culture infested with Paper Tigers.

Blogs get more clicks and magazines sell more copies if they lead with fear. And, the products, oy vey with the fear-based product market.

Sleep training = FEAR. Time outs = FEAR. Dinner started 10 minutes late = FEAR. No date night this month = FEAR.

You don't want to be the one that gets eaten alive for lack of appropriate fear, so you settle into constant fear.

We've made toxic anxiety the hallmark of good parenting.

Then we're exhausted, on edge, snappy, and all we want is a break.

A break from the hypervigilance. But, oh no, dear god, a break is dangerous. Mega Double Whammy.

The irony of the constant fear is that it makes us more likely to create the harm we want to avoid. We become sharp, tense, tight parents. When real danger comes, we're so maxed out, we get flooded with overwhelm and engage less effectively to protect what matters most.

In order to choose a different path, you have to rebel against what the culture wants you to do, and what your over-active brain wants you to do. You have to see the bigger picture, and you have to discern the real threats from the paper ones.

When you limit your fears and worries to only the big, live Tigers, you create space within yourself to slow down and be nourished, physically and emotionally.

When you let the Paper Tigers be, you find the calm, balance, and energy that seemed out of reach. When you let the Paper Tigers be, you are more resilient and effective in a crisis. And, perhaps most importantly, when you let the Paper Tigers be, you show your children how to tell the difference between the fake threats and the real ones.

So make a list of all the things you worry about, big and small. Then next to it, mark 'Paper' or 'Real.'

And then next time you see a Paper Tiger, notice your fear, and be kind and gentle with it. Then get back to nourishing yourself physically and emotionally, and build up your calm, energized resilience.

With love and optimism,

Dr. J