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I always hoped my daughter would inherit my freckles and maybe my sense of humor. What I hoped wouldn’t be passed down was my anxiety disorder. But even though she is just 6 years old, I can already see signs of anxiety, stress and worry.
When her baseball team’s schedule recently indicated they would be playing on a new field across town, my girl was reduced to tears and “what ifs.”
“What do I do?” she asked, breathing rapidly and wringing her hands.
I pointed out it’s the same as the field they normally play on: same game, same people, just a different location.
She wasn’t comforted, worrying about knowing where to go, finding first base and people laughing at her.
Whoa, I thought, Where is this coming from? I could have easily scoffed and told her to stop being silly and to get out on the field. But she was clearly in distress. I knew because I recognized her reaction and emotions.
Having dealt with various forms of anxiety disorders — social anxiety, panic, agoraphobia — since adolescence, I’m familiar with the intense (and often irrational) feelings that accompany these conditions. It’s taken nearly 20 years of therapy, medicine and perseverance to cope with my own mental health journey, yet watching my daughter experience many of the same symptoms has forced me to reevaluate the way I manage my own health — and now hers.
Experts agree that anxiety is largely genetic and tends to run in families. I’m certain that some of my phobias came from my own mother, a combination of hereditary and learned behavior. I thought if I kept my symptoms secret and never discussed or showed them, my three young children might be spared from suffering the same trials.
But I’ve learned that genetics are more powerful than the secrets we keep. My daughter had never witnessed me having a panic attack, nor heard the word “anxiety” slip my lips, yet her struggles are becoming apparent. Watching her deal with anxious thoughts and feelings flipped a switch in my brain: How is my silence helping her? It’s not.
So we’ve decided to make our home and family a transparent and supportive place where feelings and emotions are talked about candidly. Rather than quietly wishing she’ll grow out of it, I’m helping her tackle her anxiety head on — through example. I want to teach my children that many of these thoughts and feelings are not only okay but also manageable.
We regularly check in with each other, asking how we’re feeling, particularly in situations that are likely to create uncertainty and jitters. We practice deep, slow breathing. We try to live an active lifestyle, using movement as a way to quiet a nervous mind.
A recent trip to the amusement park was an excellent teaching moment — for both of us. Amusement parks rank up there with supermarkets, retail stores and museums on my list of panic-inducing places, because waiting in lines is one of those inexplicable triggers for me.
“Wanna go on the big roller coaster!?” my daughter’s friend asked, excited. My daughter looked at me and I could see the angst in her eyes. I knelt to meet her at eye level, then softly spoke. I asked her if she wanted to try, acknowledged that she was feeling scared and told her she didn’t have to ride if she didn’t want to. She whispered that she wanted to, but she was nervous.
Say it, I thought. Show her you’re stronger than anxiety.
“C’mon,” I finally said. “I’ll go with you.”
And we did. We waited in line, and as we got closer to our turn, she squeezed my hand. “I’m feeling really nervous,” she said. “Me too,” I replied. We smiled, took a breath and moved forward. Afterward, I told her how proud I was that we conquered our fear together.
Hiding emotions or making excuses for symptoms is not only ineffective, it can be harmful. Avoidance just reinforces anxiety. Children learn by example, and genetics cannot be controlled. Letting kids witness vulnerability is a powerful thing.
Eradicating the stigma around these disorders is one of my primary missions as a parent. I’m grateful that the upcoming generation of parents has much more support and awareness than I did, and I hope to contribute to that trend. As for my daughter, she’s teaching me about patience, understanding and compassion — not only for herself but for myself. Together we figure out ways to overcome anxiety.
I would love to think that the grip of anxiety will pardon my kids, but that might not be the case. So I’m looking for ways to soften its presence, should it make an appearance. I’m doing that with a pragmatic, accepting and positive outlook.
My girl and I have formed a mentality of “we’re in this together,” and we’re figuring out ways that we can navigate this journey side by side.
Jennifer Craven is an instructor of fashion merchandising at Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania.