May 6, 2019

Is some anxiety ok?

I’ve been working on letting go of my own feelings of despair when either of my beloved offspring is not ok. This is so hard. Appallingly challenging. My urgent need to fix it is even more compelling.Whether these feelings are built into parental DNA, or just the product of our generation of parents for whom parenting has become professionalized and obsessional, I don’t know. Either way, I do know it’s unhelpful to my kids. And perhaps damaging.

The camp owners co-op that I belong to recently hired Dr. Alex Russell to teach us about anxiety. It was an eye opener. Dr. Russell taught us the difference between problematic anxiety and adaptive anxiety. The former is when anxiety prevents you from doing stuff. The latter is the jitters we get before doing something hard or scary. The former is a problem. The latter is appropriate.

Which seems so simple.

And yet as parents we so often seem unable to distinguish between the two. The reason for that is less interesting than the results. The reason is simply our own fears that our kids won’t thrive. Then there’s what we do about those feelings.

Dr. Russell drew a simple chart of a child’s timeline from birth to age 18. He got us to agree that at birth the child is 100% dependent on us, and at age 18 that child has to be 0% dependent on us in order to take flight and go away to university. Problem is, if a teen is still by and large dependent on us at age 16, it’s too big a leap to go from 0 to 60 in a year or two. Which unfortunately explains why too many kids struggle too much to adapt to university.

So back up a few years. Imagine if we, as parents, got out of the way a lot earlier and made room for our kids to be more independent… at school, in the kitchen, choosing extra-curriculars. Here’s where adaptive anxiety arrives. They’d be nervous. They’d worry about stuff.

Hurrah! Nothing wrong with that. Adaptive anxiety fuels studying for exams and other important life tasks. It’s functional!

And as parents, we hate it. Our knee jerk response is to protect our kids from bad feelings, so we leap on the rescue wagon. Which is a big reason why summer camp can be so challenging…. For parents.

‘Tis the season. As summer looms, it’s time for parents to start getting ready for camp. This isn’t about packing lists or bus schedules.

It’s about the hard part: Tolerating our children’s adaptive anxiety. Camp, especially overnight camp, is hard on parents because we can neither see nor control our kids’ environments. And, even worse, we can’t check in with them at the end of their day. This is a recipe for parental anxiety. What we need to do with that is simple: Park it. But our kids, with exquisite awareness of how to push parental buttons, tend to do so by over-sharing their own adaptive anxiety.

I can’t be in that cabin. I hate those girls.

Call and tell camp I can’t go on on trip. Uncle Sol will give me a doctor letter.

The water’s too cold, I can’t go swimming.

The mean kid from school is going there. Make sure he’s not in my cabin.

I don’t like the food. Send my special snacks.

And that’s only before camp. Once there, kids can get our attention and push some more buttons with the letter.

I hate camp. Come get me now.

The kids are mean.

A kid called me a loser.

I got a concussion/almost drowned/threw up/have a bad cold and nobody helped me.

What we want to do having received that lovely missive is jump in the car NOW! Instead we control ourselves and call camp to demand that they fix it NOW.

But if we take a page from Dr. Russell’s book, we will tell ourselves that our child has adaptive anxiety. It’s real, it’s hard, and they’re going to learn so much by going through this. We’ll support them by writing back, saying lots of empathic things about how hard the situation feels, and how much we love them. And we’ll express confidence that they can deal with it. We’ll ask them how they want to manage the situation. This will be much more painful and difficult for us than for our children.

We might let the camp director know, but it doesn’t really matter, because the most important person here is my child, the person I am trying to grow into an independent and resilient creature who will manage the transition to university thanks to practicing doing stuff without me, and tolerating adaptive anxiety.

Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing? And that, really, is the purpose of summer camp.

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