Parenting

I Can't Stop Saying This Phrase To My Kids Because Of My Anxiety

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As soon as the minivan doors slide open, I tell my kids, “Go straight to the sidewalk and wait for me.” We’ve just arrived at our favorite park, ready to expend some serious energy.

Truth be told, this park is our favorite because it’s my favorite. It’s conveniently located just a few miles from our house. But the real reason I prefer this park is that I feel it’s the safest. The playground is far from the parking lot where distracted drivers turn around when they’re lost. The fishing pond is far enough away that I don’t worry one of my kids will fall in when playing tag with friends. There’s always a few families present, so the place isn’t deserted, but it’s also not over-crowded.

I grab my purse and the cooler bag containing water bottles and granola bars and take my toddler by the hand. My older three children dash off toward the familiar playground, racing to see who can be the first one to go down the slide.

When I reach the playground and set our bags on a bench in the shade, my toddler pulls her hand from mine, running full-force toward her older siblings. And I call out the all-too-familiar phrase, “Be careful!”

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The truth is, I tell my kids to “be careful” all of the time. Before we walk through a store parking lot or get into a swimming pool, I am calling out, imploring them to be mindful of their actions. Other variations include prompting my kids to make safe choices, watch out for younger and smaller kids, and slow down.

Maybe it sounds like I’m paranoid and over-the-top, but the truth is, I know exactly why I’m the self-identified vigilant safety police.

Because of my life-long battle with anxiety, I am perpetually plagued with fear that something will happen to one of my children. I’ve heard too many freak accident stories over the years that haunt me, prompting me to forewarn my children of danger.

For example, there’s the story of young softball player who left her soda unattended and returned to get a drink, swallowing a bee. She was allergic to bees. Or the little boy who was watching his dad fix the car when the garage door somehow released, crushing the boy to death. Or the grandma who put her car into park and then pushed the auto-up window buttons, strangling her grandson whose head was hanging out the window.

Disturbing? You bet. Memorable. Most definitely. A mother’s worst nightmare.

Being hyper-vigilant is about safety, of course, but it’s also about anxiety. What could happen is terrifying. I’ve asked myself if my anxiety, for all of its many faults, has given me a gift. It’s revved up motherly, protective instincts. After all, isn’t a parent’s ultimate job to make sure my kids are safe?

I’m constantly battling the temptation to default to helicopter mom mode. And I realize that if I don’t keep myself in check, I’m going to over-caution my children out of their otherwise happy childhood.

Some of my concerns are valid, like the one time a year when my kids get to hold sparklers. God help me. I make them keep their arms as stick-straight and extended as far as possible when they hold that damn fire stick that practically screams second-degree burn.

Of course, I remember how magical it was to hold sparklers as a child. My cousins and I would line up, and our dads would go down the line lighting the tips. The moms would snap pictures while my cousins and I would write our names in night the air.

There are very real dangers that modern parents face when it comes to our kids. Stranger danger has been taken to a whole new level with the increase in child sex trafficking. We worry about what access to social media will do to our children’s mental health as well as their physical safety. We know the realities, that many people do not properly store guns in their homes, leaving them accessible to children.

Then there’s the long-standing parental struggles with teaching our kids about drugs and alcohol. We have to let them learn to drive a car. And then there’s those teen romantic relationships (i.e. sex).

I don’t want to squander any part of my kids’ childhood with my paranoia about the bad things that could, but probably won’t, happen. But I cannot turn my anxiety off. Not with meditation, or enough sleep and exercise, or a prescription, or supplements, or therapy.

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I’m wired how I’m wired. And though I’m certainly far less fearful than I was three kids ago when I was a new mom of one, I’m still working my ass off to tame my anxiety. I want to make sure my kids see opportunities and take them, unafraid to try new things or meet new people. I yearn to say “yes” and “go for it” far more than I say “no” and “that’s not a good idea.”

As my children get older, I have more and more chances to be the mom I want to be. My tween is getting invites left and right. And I have three more kids coming right up behind her. There’s no stopping the inevitable. My babies are growing up.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a strict and discerning parent. Kids need their parents to be parents, not friends. But as my kids’ parent, I’m also their partner, their number one look-to. They are learning to see the world as I do, because they’re always watching and emulating me. So if I’m not willing to say yes, they won’t be either.

We can spend our energy worrying and asking ourselves the terrifying “what if” questions, or we can opt to say “yes” responsibly. We can also work to teach our children right from wrong, to listen to their intuition, and to never think twice about texting us to come pick them up if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

I’m not sure my anxiety will ever lessen. I certainly won’t bet on it. But I can make the decision that I’ll navigate it, day by day, situation by situation. And instead of defaulting to some version of “be careful,” I can teach my children to embrace life’s adventures.

I know this starts with me. I’m working on it.

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