Millennials and Gen Z are feeling ‘parental milestone anxiety’, a psychologist shares

In tandem with the rise in anxiety disorders since the pandemic, there has been a noticeable uptick in “milestone anxiety” across various age groups, with millennials and Gen Z particularly affected. Notably, this phenomenon extends to parents as well. While “parental milestone anxiety” does not constitute an official diagnosis or mental health disorder, it encompasses feelings of unease, apprehension, fixation or concern associated with reaching specific life milestones, like becoming a parent.

Anxiety is an emotion that many experience in their lifetime. For some, this can evolve into something that impacts their ability to function in daily life, leading to an anxiety disorder. Following the Covid pandemic, there has been a surge in mental health issues across the board, with anxiety disorder being the most common disorder in the United States. In the US alone, approximately 19% of adults have an anxiety disorder.

As a psychologist, my mission is to destigmatize the entire spectrum of human emotions. Throughout our lives, we inevitably experience a range of feelings, including sadness, nervousness, joy, and anxiety—all integral aspects of the human experience. Here’s what to know about parental milestone anxiety—and how to manage it.

What is parental milestone anxiety, exactly?

Several factors come into play for parents or individuals aspiring to become parents. One is your own personal context, which we know contributes to our well-being.  It’s essential to reflect on the ideas and aspirations you harbored about parenthood, including when and what it would entail.

  • Did the journey to parenthood unfold smoothly for you?

  • Does the reality align with the vision you once held?

These questions are just a few of the elements that contribute to milestone anxiety.

Perhaps your expectations on parenthood are not aligning with reality. Some of us may have a vision of what our life is going to look like and then life takes its turns. These turns push us to question and re-calibrate expectations all around.

How to manage parental milestone anxiety

Here’s what I know about humans. We don’t really like change. In fact, most of us will avoid it if we can and that is just part of our hard wiring.

This goes back to the days when we were living as hunters and gatherers and our brain was wired to signal when we were in danger. Anxiety was a purposeful emotion we needed to keep us safe and respond to danger fast enough to keep us alive. In fact, the symptoms that come along with anxiety, including increased heart rate, sweating, heavy breathing, and agitation were needed to move fast when a predator was coming for you. Unfortunately, our brains have not evolved quite fast enough to reduce our natural instinct to keep us safe.  The good news? The science has.

That means we have more information at our disposal about how our emotions, reactions and bodies function. This allows us to have agency over our responses, feelings and actions. For people struggling with parental milestone anxiety, I would suggest the following:

Check your social context

Pay attention to your environment and what messages it might be sending you about where you should be in life. What signals are you receiving about your role as a parent or your sentiments about parenthood?

As you become more observant, you will notice the subtle, yet pervasive, nature of these messages within your environment. For instance, the influence of media portrayals of parenting. When you look at your social media feed and come across images posted by friends, be aware of how these visuals can shape the narrative you construct about your own life.

What did you learn from your family about being a parent or parenting? Pay attention to the people in your life and whether you are comparing yourself without even knowing it.

It’s worth noting that social comparison is a natural human habit, as articulated by psychologist Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory in 1954. His theory revealed that individuals constantly evaluate and compare themselves to others on a multitude of factors ranging from wealth, personality, attractiveness, intelligence and more. Research has found that on average, 10% of our thoughts are spent comparing ourselves to others (Psychology Today, 2023).

Social comparisons are not necessarily a bad thing, as we need to scan our environments and look for cues to adapt and survive. However, the tipping point occurs when this habit starts to encroach upon our functioning.

Define your story

Be open and flexible when establishing your own timeline and expectations. This process starts by recognizing the influence of your surroundings and the personal expectations you’ve imposed upon yourself.

Once you have this awareness, you can begin a journey of self-compassion. This means giving yourself grace to define your own timeline that is uniquely fit for your goals and life.

Openness and flexibility are personality traits that science has linked to having positive mental health and well-being.

It’s about learning to acknowledge where you find yourself in your parenting journey, understanding that it need not conform to societal norms but should be tailored to what suits you best.

Focus on mindfulness

One key feature of anxiety is a future focus. When we spend too much time focusing on what might or might not come, we miss what is in front of us: The here and now.

Mindfulness is the ability to focus your attention on the present. This requires consistent practice and intentionality because the brain is naturally wired to anticipate and prepare for what is next. There are many resources and ways to practice and develop mindfulness skills.

Foster a gratitude mindset

Our mindset undeniably shapes our perspective on life and wields a significant influence on the quality of our relationships. Research has also found that we can grow and nurture a gratitude mindset through mindfulness of our thoughts and outlooks.

Let’s try a simple exercise: Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, try directing your attention to gratitude for the things you do have. This can be as simple as naming three things you are grateful for every morning when you start your day. With time, your brain learns to do this automatically, resulting in an increased sense of gratitude and happiness.

A note on navigating parental milestone anxiety

In a constantly evolving world where social norms, expectations and cultures are in flux, it becomes essential to maintain a strong sense of grounding. This means anchoring yourself firmly in your own values, aspirations and life goals.

The journey of parenthood can draw upon a myriad of emotions and experiences, many of which may catch you by surprise. The more deeply rooted you are within yourself, the better equipped you become to navigate these changes.

Change remains the sole constant in life, and the only path to surmount it is by embracing it wholeheartedly and traversing through its challenges.