Anxiety Is Killing My Kids' Sense Of Adventure

by Annie Reneau
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

My daughter looks at me with anxious eyes. “You said you wanted to try karate,” I say to her calmly. “Now you’ve changed your mind?” I try to ask this question without any hint of exasperation in my voice, as if I’m just casually clarifying the situation. I’m annoyed, even though I don’t want to be. It’s just that we’ve been through this pattern — wanting to try something but then letting anxiety freak her out — too many times to count.

It’s not about karate at all. Though I think it’s a great discipline, I don’t give a hoot if my kids do or don’t want to do martial arts. I just want them to try something — anything — new. I want them to follow a spark of interest and see where it leads without worrying about all of the what ifs. I want them to embrace the adventure of life — to explore and learn, to try and succeed, as well as to try and fail.

But my kids have a hard time with that. As soon as they start to indulge the idea of trying something new, fear and anxiety set in. From what I can see, some of it is social anxiety and some of it is fear of making a mistake or looking foolish. Perfectionism plays a role, as well some strong introverted tendencies. It’s not surprising, since generalized anxiety and some more specific anxieties run through our kids’ bloodlines on both sides. I guess our little darlings were sort of doomed from the get-go, poor things.

I do understand fear and anxiety. Who doesn’t? But my kids’ levels of fear and anxiety are beyond what I can relate to. I didn’t get a strong dose of the anxious gene, and whatever I did get has faded over the years. There are things I didn’t do when I was young because I felt too nervous about them, which I regret. And there are things I did do in spite of feeling nervous about them, which I’m thankful for. Those experiences of pushing past the fear taught me so much about my own capacities and potential, and gave me the self-confidence to keep trying new things.

As a result, I’ve grown into an adult with an adventurous spirit and a passion for living life to its fullest — a quality that only seems to be growing stronger the older I get. I’m mindful of the fact that we only get one go at this, and we’d better make the most of it. My life isn’t perfect (and doesn’t have to be), but it is extraordinary. Life is good, beautiful, rich, meaningful, and full of all kinds of new things to explore.

And I’m trying to teach my kids to look at the world through that same lens of positivity and fascination. I don’t want fear to hold them back. My husband (who also struggles with anxiety) and I talk a lot about how fear tries to trick you, how it tells you there’s danger that isn’t there or that terrible things might happen if you do or don’t do certain things. My kids really do want to stretch their wings and to try new things, but figuring out how to help them get over the anxiety that’s barring their way is a challenge. Sometimes I feel like my kids’ fear and anxiety are my biggest parenting obstacles. We’ve got good behavior and good character down, but the life lessons I want to impart to my kids while they’re still in the nest are proving difficult. Anxiety is not something you can reason with.

It’s frustrating for me, and I know it’s frustrating for them. But just like I tell our kids, we should focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t. As parents of anxious kids, we can give them time, empathy, and gentle pushing. We can continue to use language that inspires and encourages, and hope that those words and ideas will eventually be internalized.

We can get them into therapy and try various approaches to manage their fearful thoughts. We can teach them to follow written rules and that it’s okay to break unwritten ones that don’t serve any real purpose. Who says you have to work a 9–5 job? Who says you can’t have apples, peanut butter, and popcorn for dinner? Who says you can’t put all of your belongings into storage and travel the country for a year? We can teach them they have a say in their own destiny.

We can give our kids a zest for life and show them that it’s okay to take thoughtful risks. And hopefully, in time, we can help them overcome the anxieties that hold them back and the fear that limits their experience.

My daughter did end up taking karate, by the way, after many heart-to-hearts and a few tears. And it’s been great. She’s gained confidence and discipline, made some new friends, and genuinely enjoys it. But most importantly, she’s experienced the joy and power of overcoming fear — and that in itself is a great adventure.