Anxious Parents Make Anxious Children: How I’m Letting Go
For as long as I can remember, I have been a riddled with anxiety. On the playground, I studied my tennis shoes with hopes I wouldn't be chosen for kickball. I sweated in the 40-degree weather with fear that my face would resemble a pug dog after one swift kick to my noggin.
Dodge Ball boosted my worries in middle school gym class. I cowered in the back corners pleading to get hit in the shoes because the other kids might not have a strong enough arm to reach me.
Please let me stay on the sidelines!
I waited until 16-years-old before I passed my drivers’ permit. Even though all my friends had their learner permits at 14-years-old, my parents had to physically force me to get behind the wheel. Why did I think I wouldn't be able to do it? My wild imagination took over—and this was before violent movies and TV programs became so prevalent.
Before I became a nurse and took a Microbiology class, I felt scared of trying anything new or getting hurt; but that class put me in a severe class of paranoia.
“GERMS EVERYWHERE! Run for your life!!”
I probably shouldn't have signed up for the class, but it was a prerequisite and hindsight is 20/20, although it probably had a astigmatism.
Unfortunately, when I lost my first baby as a full-term stillborn, my fears seemed justified. For my next two pregnancies, I ran around with a rented fetal heart monitor in my purse. Any time I felt worried about my growing baby, I would stop what I was doing, lube up and then listen to the soothing sounds of my healthy baby in utero.
You would think that after each of their births, I would be relieved and not worry; but then there was the chance of SIDS or choking or febrile seizures. It was never-ending.
Where did I come up with these ideas? Why was fear taking over my life? Some experts say genetics plays into this thinking. But I believe the behavior is also learned. Perhaps some people have a predisposition toward being a “helicopter parent,” but their role models at a young age set an example of how they will react to situations.
This is not to blame anyone in my family for teaching me how to be a cowardly mess for they obviously learned that way too. I remember my grandmother, who was a smoker, checking and repeatedly re-checking her chair for ashes before she retired for the night. Every night.
So when a child does something physical and the parent audibly gasps; or if a kid falls down, and the parent quickly says, “Are you OK?” This is teaching your child to be fearful.
I didn't think I was doing this to my munchkins. In fact, I have been trying for years to do the opposite. But it’s ingrained in my personality. After one child trips and bumps her knee, I gasp and ask if she is hurt. Then when I see it was nothing, I change my tune and say, “Oh, you’re fine!” brushing it off, like it isn’t a big deal. But I already made them anxious with my gasp and scared concerning remarks. Every time I do this, it is adding fuel to the fire of anxiety.
It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But I’m going to try my damndest to exhale when they trip and fall. No gasping here. I will look away and wait for them to come to me if they need my help. Not that I will ignore their needs, but to make sure not to make a mountain out of an anthill.
When my girls ask to climb a tree, I won’t say, “Be careful!” They don’t want to fall out of the tree. They are in grade school and know if you let go, gravity will give them a pounding. Warning them will only put fear and hesitation into their brains, and I want to end this cycle of anxiety suffocating our family tree, like an invasive vine.
Last week we went to the ocean for a family vacation.
Planes crash every day! Lord, they aren't good enough swimmers. There might be sharks or riptides! This is not a healthy way to live life. I need to plug in the soundtrack of Frozen and have it on repeat for the song “Let it Go!”
Needless, to say the planes did just great. No need to pull my seat cushion out in case of an emergency water landing. I didn't have to put on my oxygen mask before assisting my children with theirs. In fact, we played a game with every take off and landing. It was ride the roller coaster. As soon as the plane would lift off, I would throw my hands up in the air and shake them like I was riding the tallest roller coaster. The girls loved it, joined me and squealed for joy each time. They don’t have the fear of flying because of this game. I took my fears and “Let it Go!”
When my family got into the ocean—despite my fear that a porpoise I spotted on the horizon was a shark—I made sure my girls didn't know of my concerns. I didn't have them exit the water, even though I had my finger on speed dial for 9-1-1 for five minutes. I successfully “Let it Go!”
As the girl's older cousin, who had been body surfing all of his life, took my tentative seven-year-old out in the crashing waves to learn the art of riding a wave., a wave of nausea and explosive diarrhea rolled in me. But I didn't gasp. I kept giving her the thumbs up from the beach, and prayed I could trust this savvy man of the water. I “Let it Go!”
Usually, when I collect my thoughts and feelings after a vacation, I determine if it was a success by if there was sibling bickering, whining, or if someone barfed in the car. Was the place we stayed in clean? Could I relax and read a book?
Not this trip. The true success of our vacation was I let my anxiety go and let my daughters experience new things. They showed amazing signs of bravery, and with that they received self-confidence and the freedom from anxiety. Watching their freedom is the best feeling I've had as a mother so far.
Maybe there is hope for my girls to break the strangling vine of anxiety. That makes me exhale just thinking about it!
Stacey Hatton is a retired kids’ nurse, mom to 2 feisty munchkins and blogs at www.NurseMommyLaughs.com.