What kind of anxious parent are you?

Top New York therapist Dana Dorfman explains how not to pass your worries on to the kids


Violent mother yelling at daughter

What kind of parent are you? Are you a sculptor or a shepherd? Perhaps you are a crowd-pleaser or an avoider. It is impossible not to ask oneself these questions while reading psychotherapist Dana Dorfman’s revelatory new parenting book, When Worry Works.

By chapter four, I was convinced I was a sculptor. By chapter seven, an avoider, but by the time I had read chapter nine, it was obvious to me that I was a shepherd. Should I worry?

Speaking from her Brooklyn apartment on a “very, very cold” New York morning, Dr Dorfman allays my concerns about being a parental anomaly. “Few people fit discreetly into any one type. They are really just ways to get people to recognise themselves.”

Dr Dorfman’s debut book is an exploration of parents’ often damaging preoccupation with academic achievement, while also providing gentle and constructive guidance on how to overcome it. The eight different types of parents, or “Parent Anxiety Reaction Types”, set out in the book (see panel) are based on cases she has come across in her practice, says the 55-year old who is now the go-to therapist for New York parents.

“Readers may recognise their own behaviour and think: ‘Ah, I always thought that this was just because I love my kid and that this was the right thing to do. I never thought that anxiety was at play here’.”

While a certain amount of anxiety is essential — “We wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t have any anxiety. It mobilises us and ensures we are prepared” — misplaced or excessive achievement anxiety can “have a paradoxical effect on kids and unwittingly derail interactions” between them and their parents. Dr Dorfman’s hope is that the book will help parents recognise their anxiety and its negative impact, so they shift their approach to enable both their teen and their relationship with them to flourish.

The decision to write the book was a response to Dr Dorfman’s own situation, both professional and personal. Professional because she is “a therapist in midtown Manhattan and I was seeing tons of kids who were academically award-winning with resumés that would knock your socks of, but were feeling depressed, empty and directionless.” Personal because as a mother of a tween and a teen when she started the book seven years ago, “I certainly saw what my kids were struggling with”.

But was it Dr Dorfman’s desire to address the negative aspects of her own upbringing? “I was raised in a very achievement-oriented, academically driven family. My mother memorised the SAT score of every one of my friends.”

A bright child, Dorfman had started out at the top of her class in reading, “which my mother was quite proud of”. But as she went into adolescence, she started to struggle academically due to attention issues, which were only diagnosed in adulthood. “I was deeply ashamed of my challenges. I really blamed myself and stopped progressing or doing any work.” Her parents, who had set their sights on their daughter going to an Ivy League school, were, she says, “extremely disappointed” when she ended up at “a mediocre college” in the same town where her father had attended an Ivy League. “In the meantime, I was a very curious, really intellectually driven person, but I had no way to direct it.”

External and internal criticism led to Dorfman experiencing anxiety and depression, which she was able to mask by being “the social one” of the three siblings.

She is keen to point out that she doesn’t blame her parents (“I’m sure that’s very much how they were also brought up,”) and that they are “actually quite proud of my work”. But the spiral of academic pressure, disappointment and shame in her teenage years led to Dr Dorfman parenting her own children in a very different way. “I am a corrector. I was really intent on doing the opposite of what my parents had done.”

But, as she herself learnt, going to the other extreme can backfire. “My daughter was in a high pressured New York City school, surrounded by other families who were really emphasising achievement. She said to me at one point: ‘All you care about is if I’m a good person!’ She felt misunderstood and that I was ignoring the world that she was in.” Laughing at her own parenting pitfalls, Dorfman exclaims: “So you can see that no matter what you try to do, it’s wrong!”

Despite the serious nature of her work, away from the therapist’s couch, Dorfman is good fun. She is also self-deprecating, perhaps a hangover from her teenage years, apologising for her answers “going off somewhere else” and for scheduling a Zoom interview on a Monday morning: “You’re getting the warm-up act!” But if she still lacks confidence, it hasn’t prevented her from becoming the go-to therapist for New York parents, no doubt drawn to her innate empathy and compassion. Exchanging stories on the Herculean task of getting new passports for our respective children, Dorfman recalls: “I filled out all of the forms, but the guy kept saying: You did this wrong’ and ‘Did you do this?’ They just treat you so inhumanely, which I’m sure is how they have also been treated.”

In an unexpected case of life imitating art, during the writing of the book, Dr Dorfman’s son had a bout of extreme anxiety. “I could see how my anxiety was activated by this experience and how I needed to manage it in order to help him. There is no greater motivator to making a personal change than if you know it’s going to benefit your kid.”

Dr Dorfman says that much of our anxiety would be alleviated if we took parental decisions according to our values rather than the lure of academic success for our children. “Our values are like our North Star. When we are feeling conflicted, what is in the core of our being which is guiding us? What is truly most important to us? What is it we want to convey to our kids?”

Describing herself as “very culturally Jewish” — she will have a “Bookmitzvah” to launch her book — Dr Dorfman identifies with Jewish values such as “critical thinking, close family connections, belonging to a community and education”.

But within the Jewish experience, there is also anxiety: “Jews have had a lot of reasons to be anxious.” With this is mind, she is anticipating good sales figures among Jewish parents. “The book is about children and anxiety. They might be stereotypical Jewish concerns, but they are somewhat accurate. As my husband says: ‘The word “worry” is in the title. Why wouldn’t that appeal to Jews?’”

‘When Worry Works: How to Harness Your Parenting Stress and Guide Your Teen to Success’ (Rowman & Littlefield, £21.50, Rowman & Littlefield) by Dana Dorfman

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive