Let’s face it, a lot of us worry. From dealing with busy schedules and endless to-do lists to managing all the trials and tribulations of being a parent (and there are so many), there is plenty to worry about.
For many, this frantic business is temporary. But for the 40 million Americans living with anxiety, worrying about worry is our reality.
I’ve lived with anxiety for so long that I’m not sure if I even know how to look at a situation without my “what if” filter, the voice that runs through my head with irrational thoughts and ideas — repeating “what if” about anything and everything, obsessively fixating on things that I should have let go of, excessively questioning decisions I’ve made, and imagining every possible negative outcome to any situation. The voice asks “What if we get in a car crash on the way to school?” and “What if my son falls out of the tree while playing?” More often than I’d like to admit, I overestimate the risk of danger and underestimate my ability to cope with fear.
And it’s a cycle I can trace back for generations. My grandmother was anxious, and consequently, so was my dad. I’m the youngest of three, but the only one with anxiety, which makes me wonder, is it nature or nurture? Is it something hardwired in our brain, or do we learn anxiety?
Actually, it’s both.
For me, anxiety began when I was a young child. I took my cues from my dad, which meant, worrying about my worries — all the time. I would lie in bed and worry about earthquakes, coming up with plans just in case one happened. As I got older, I would also worry about the fact that I worried about this so much. Crossing bridges brought on a sense of fear that teetered on the edge of being a panic attack. Once we crossed, I worried that I would never stop worrying. Worry, worry, worry.
But if the message we send about how to deal with situations that are unfamiliar or unpredictable is one of fear, our kids will learn to treat those experiences with anxiety and worry. This is something I know all too well, because despite my best intentions, I’ve passed on some of my anxious traits to my kids. Though I’ve only recently realized it, my frantic worrying is becoming a way of life for my children.
Now 11 and 9, both of my kids show signs of anxiety. I watch my daughter worry about being late and believing the worst is going to happen, to the point that she wants to be places 30 minutes ahead of time. But it’s my son, who is 9, that seems to be struggling the most. Over the last two years, I’ve noticed a trend with him: He starts many sentences with “What if?” which leads to him imagining the worst possible outcome in many situations. This makes an appearance with school assignments, performance in sporting events (he plays golf, which is the WORST anxiety-triggering sport), and social situations (What if they don’t like me?) — all things that also trigger anxiety in me.
I’ve learned to accept that I have no control over whether or not my kids are wired to worry (nature), but I do have control over the environment (nurture) they are raised in. Because of this, I’ve spent the last two years developing healthier ways of coping with and managing my own anxiety.
For me, there are two key elements that come into play when changing the environmental side of the equation: modeling and teaching. In particular, by modeling healthier ways of managing anxiety, I hope to increase the odds that my kids will develop healthier ways of dealing with life’s challenges. While totally worth it, working on myself while also trying to teach my children healthier ways of handling their own worries has, at times, been quite challenging. But with grace and kindness towards myself, plus a whole lot of patience, there are a few tricks I’ve learned along the way.
Fake it until I make it. Regardless of the circumstances, most parents are pros at this one. For me, “faking it” means looking calm while underneath I’m freaking out. While this trick doesn’t always work, it does help in everyday situations that don’t typically warrant an anxious response but still trigger unnecessary worry. For example, when driving over a bridge with a huge body of water underneath (this one makes my stomach flip), which is definitely a trigger for me, I know that it’s not something that should create ongoing worry and fear in my children.
Talk it out. One other technique that works for me, and is recommended by many experts, is to talk about my anxiety. When faced with a situation that triggers anxiety in me but is typically considered low-risk in others, I can use this as a teachable moment to talk to my children about fear and worry. I have a significant fear of amusement park rides. On a trip to Disneyland a few years ago, I found myself talking about how scary and dangerous the rides are and coming up with every possible “what if.” At that point, my kids had minimal experience with rides, which meant they would be framing their views based on my insecurities. Fortunately, I recognized this and used it as a way to talk to them about my fears. After a quick conversation, we ALL went on Splash Mountain, something I had never done before. This allowed me to show them that despite being afraid, I could take a chance, prove that I was strong enough to handle the challenge, and consequently have a whole lot of fun!
Avoid rescuing my children. Ugh…this one is a challenge for me. Like many other parents, it’s so hard to watch my kids struggle with worry. I often feel torn between listening to my mama heart, which tells me to rescue, and my brain, which tells me to hang back and wait. But here’s the thing, if I jump in and take them away from an uncomfortable situation, they never learn to deal with adversity on their own. Before any sporting event, my son worries about his performance, to the point that he gets an upset stomach. My mom heart says to scoop him up and let him withdraw from competition, but my experience with anxiety tells me that he is safe and needs to feel discomfort. Because what might feel right at the moment, like letting him leave, could actually add to his fear and anxiety. So, I pause and take a deep breath. Then, I model calmness and confidence. Remember, they take their cues from us.
But when my children are really struggling, they know they don’t have to go it alone. I can always, and do always, step in and teach them appropriate ways to cope when they need it. Not only does this help them come up with new healthy habits and strategies for dealing with challenge and adversity, it also shows them that a healthy dose of worry and anxiety is just a normal part of life. All of us are strong enough to work through it and come out on the other side.
About the author
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer focusing on parenting, health, and wellness. She is passionate about all things fitness and health and loves spending time with her husband, daughter, and son.