Mother’s Day is a time for reflection about our own moms and for some of us, our own role as mothers. It’s also May, which means that it is test-taking time for students across the U.S. Like many parents, I have mixed feelings about the testing programs, particularly for higher-achieving students. When my eight-year-old expressed concern back in October that she might not pass the Virginia Standards of Learning, our state tests, I nearly fell over. Then the New York Times ran an article that I am sure many parents in my shoes read with interest. The piece described why some highly competent children fall apart at high-pressure points, like during achievement testing, while other students seem to almost overachieve in those same stressful situations.
According to authors Bronson and Merryman, researchers have identified a gene, the catechol-O-methyltransferase or COMT gene, which steers each of us as either a “Worrier” (one quarter of the population), “Warrior” (another quarter), or some combination of the two (about half).
The COMT gene influences how fast dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning and anticipating future consequences. If a child has the slow-clearing variety, she has a greater propensity to be in the Worrier camp. She may have better working memory, complex planning abilities, and higher verbal IQ, but she also may have a predisposition to anxiety among other mental disorders. If she instead has the fast-clearing type, she is in the Warrior domain and has one distinct advantage: she excels under pressure and in high-stress situations when others, especially Worriers, fall apart.
Undoubtedly, the “worrier” and “warrior” dichotomy is an oversimplification, and there are plenty of responses to the New York Times piece that address the complexities. Having said that, scientists have studied COMT since it was identified in 1958 and, with over 1,300 studies, generated sufficient evidence for some of the basic correlations, including anxiety and IQ differences.
But what happens when these children grow up? What do Warriors and Worriers look like as parents?
Take the Worrier Mom. Everyone knows one of these moms. A scraped knee could lead to amputation. Every cloud has tornado potential. The Worrier Mom instantaneously foresees endless, often grisly, possibilities. The Worrier Mom’s Achilles’ heel, just like test-taking day for students, is the day when an unforeseen event happens to her child. One even seemingly innocuous event—if unforeseen—may be enough to throw things into anxiety-laden chaos. Whose house? Who is that? Do I know her? Do I know her parents?
Some Worrier Moms have evolved and overcome this weakness by using a technologically advanced mom-tool:internet research. With this tool, she has the power to transform herself, at least according to the New York Times article. If given enough training and information, it seems that Worriers can outperform Warriors—even in highly stressful situations. Bronson and Merryman cite Quinn Kennedy’s study of pilots in high-stress situations, in which the Worriers far outperformed the Warriors but only when they had sufficient information and training. “Their genetically blessed working memory and attention advantage kicked in. And their experience meant they didn’t melt under the pressure of their genetic curse.” With research, perhaps Worrier Moms can transform themselves into Warrior-Worrier Moms.
Even if the labels are too much of an oversimplification, the idea is that our collective access to copious research is unprecedented and has the power to change the way we all parent—how we worry about our children and what we do about it. We can all take our Worrier moments and transform them into Warrior-Worrier moments instead. We can use research and good science to help us calm our anxiety and focus our worry on actions that matter most.
This is not to say that the Warrior-Worrier Mom is a new species; she was around before the Internet. My mother was, and still is, a Warrior-Worrier Mom. She absorbed information everywhere and would machine-gun questions—much to my childhood chagrin—at our teachers, doctors, and even well-informed strangers at the grocery store. She became a medical advocate before such roles existed, and doctors must still cringe when they see her coming. She reminds me of her fortitude with every anti-cancer book (with her notes) delivery, annual vitamin and supplement supply package, voicemail summarizing the latest study linking of Vitamin D deficiency to nearsightedness, and email summarizing the issues around the HPV vaccine. She is a Worrier on a quest to master the parenting universe as a Warrior-Worrier. She’s not worrying less, but she effectively directing the energy into research, which is helping to make me a better parent.
Thanks, Mom. I love you, too.
Got a Warrior-Worrier in your family? Share a story.
Natalia Pane, Senior Vice President, Research Operations
Natalia is also the author of The Worry Clock: A Parent’s Guide to Worrying Smarter about the Real Dangers to your Child.