The question My parents (in their 60s) are kind and intelligent. I have no doubt they love my sister and me (in our 30s) deeply.
My father’s excessive anxiety, which is never addressed, is creating tension when we meet. Potential stressors are car journeys, crowds, planes and every aspect of travel preparation. I live abroad, so each visit includes some of the above.
While my dad is trying very hard to hide his panic from us, my mum, my sister and I have become seismological sensors for the tenseness, quickened breathing or clipped sentences that might indicate any discomfort. A well-established choreography will then set in: my mother will try to cheer him up or empathise way too much, frantically looking for instant solutions. My younger sister will cry angrily or make sarcastic but vague comments about the awkwardness of our interactions. I will retreat by being demonstratively calm and factual or by quieting down completely. I’m certain that my cold behaviour is as upsetting to them as their way of coping is to me. We never talk about it.
I’m so sad for all of us. For my dad because he won’t admit to his difficulties and as a result his life is getting smaller. For my mum, because she seems so disappointed that these family moments aren’t as happy as hoped, and she sees her world shrinking. For my sister, for whom these situations bring up childhood pain and fear. For me, who’s feeling alienated from three people whom I love. What can I do to break this dynamic?
Philippa’s answer Talk to your mother and your sister about it. Acknowledge the problem and work together to try to improve the situation. If your father’s anxiety was my problem, my approach would be to address his behaviour and symptoms, but not the actual content of his anxiety. For instance, if he started to panic that the plane might be cancelled, instead of reassuring him that you could get a later flight, I’d say instead, “I notice you are feeling really tense about this.” Then I might ask him what is the worst-case scenario he is imagining. He’d probably say he doesn’t know, because although he is thinking all planes drop out of the sky, or by worrying he is somehow keeping everyone safe, he won’t want to say it out loud. But I’d be gently and firmly insistent. I call this approach steering into the skid. Our instinct is to bat away a loved one’s fears, but that approach never works for long. So go right into them, unpack them all. It’s only by steering into the skid, that is to say allowing and exploring his feelings, that you can steer out of it.
His way of talking to himself is probably a sequence of “what ifs”. For example, what if the car won’t start, what if it’s so crowded we lose each other, what if, what if, what if. Notice the “what ifs”, gently point them out to him. Don’t give him the very low statistics on air accidents, but point out that by not changing his “what ifs” to “so whats” he is making himself anxious. It needs to dawn on him that it isn’t the external world that jangles his nerves so much, but his internal one.
Instead of just dealing with the subject of his fears, which are making his world so much smaller, you will need instead to softly, softly, gently, gently challenge how he frightens himself.
Once he can see that his internal world is what causes most of the fear, then you can teach him how he can observe his fears and how he can recognise his internal fear-mongering voice and, on noticing these things, he can decide to act differently.
Get your mum and sister on board for this, too, because he’ll argue with their facts and reassurances and just stay with the contents of his process when it’s the process itself that needs gentle tackling. When the clipped sentences, or the shallow breathing start, point them out to him. Ask him what he is imagining. Be kind to any reply. Do not refute the answers, but say something like, “That does sound frightening, if you imagine all of that, no wonder you are so scared.” Ask him what the payoff is for him that he worries so much. This may help him become more aware of how he works himself up into such a state.
There seems to be a culture in your family of not talking and pretending things aren’t happening. Start the talking. Not by accusing, not by being angry, but by describing what you see. Start by sharing this article with your mother and sister – and then your dad.
We can be so scared of facing our fears, or facing up to the fact that we are good at frightening ourselves. Our instinct is that if we unpack what might be happening to see what is underpinning the well-established choreography it will make everything worse, but I have never found it to be so in the long term. By understanding what is happening below the surface, we can improve that surface immensely.
Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to [email protected]. Philippa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.
The Book You Want Everyone You Love* To Read *(and maybe a few you don’t) by Philippa Perry (Cornerstone, £18.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) by Philippa Perry (Penguin Books Ltd, £10.99)
How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry & The School of Life (Pan Macmillan, £9.99)