Parenting children is challenging.
Parenting children when you suffer from anxiety can be excruciating.
When my first born was three, he had typical, age-appropriate fears—the dark, thunderstorms, strangers. But he also wouldn’t ride a bike, step on an escalator, go near a dog or climb on playground equipment. He cried at loud noises. He had a long list of things he avoided, from bounce houses to boats, and new fears were added daily.
When he refused to take a bath for fear the shower might come on, I knew we had a problem. I was a relatively new mom, but I suspected my son’s anxiety was a product of my own.
Because I, too, have a list of fears a mile long:
- I’m anxious in the car, on airplanes and in the water.
- I worry about tornados, fires, earthquakes and flash floods.
- I hate roller coasters, skiing and trampolines.
- I avoid anything that makes me feel out of control.
- Every sniffle or fever turns me into a manic web-researcher. (At one point, my husband threatened to disable Google on my phone.)
When my son refused to take a bath, the writing was on the wall: my anxiety had become a problem.
I found a therapist.
I discovered a deeply-held belief that I am small and powerless, a belief I am not strong enough to survive suffering and pain. When I became a mother, my feelings of powerlessness were exacerbated. There was not just my own survival to worry about, but my child’s survival as well.
With the help of my therapist, I learned to recognize and honor the perpetual lump in my throat. I learned to inhale and exhale through my anxiety. I learned to resist squeezing tight when I was being invited to expand. I learned I didn’t have to avoid everything that scared me because I was strong enough to face my fears.
And I stopped telling my kids to be careful.
Instead of, “Be careful,” I learned to say:
- “I’m here.”
- “Want me to spot you?”
- “I believe in you.”
- “You’ve got this.”
Slowly, but steadily, my son faced his own fears and flexed his own muscles. With me by his side, he turned on the shower and saw, for himself, there was nothing to be afraid of. He stepped on an escalator. He learned to ride a bike without training wheels. When our family went to the lake, he felt happy and confident on the boat. In fact, he even tried tubing!
He learned to trust himself.
He’s seven now and I walk behind him as he speeds down our street on his bike. We live at the bottom of a steep hill and my breath constantly catches.
What if he swerves into the street and in front of a car?
What if a neighbor backs out of the garage and doesn’t see him?
What if he hits a bump and flies over the handlebars?
I feel afraid and want to scream, “SLOW DOWN! BE CAREFUL!” But I don’t. Instead, I take a deep breath and honor the fear I feel—the fear that results from loving him so fiercely. I take a deep breath and whisper to myself, “I’m okay….he’s okay….I’m okay….he’s okay….”
Finally, he reaches the bottom of the hill and coasts into the driveway. He hops off his bike, grins at me and shouts, “BEAT YA!”
“You sure did!” I yell. And then I take off running to catch up.