How Not To Worry | Giving Kids Space to Do Big Things
Yes, sweetheart, you should definitely go study in Spain for ten weeks. Absolutely.
The answer is always easy when it’s somewhere in the future. It’s a little tougher when the time is here.
Ellis leaves in a matter of days. Four to be exact. She’s sitting beside me now looking at last minute travel information. This time next week, I’ll be sitting here without her.
Of course, we’re usually without her because she’s in college most of the time. But that’s only five hours away. I can make a drive up and back in one day if I have to. She’s home for a weekend here and there. And I can always FaceTime or text or call.
Not this time. This separation is different. This time there will literally be an ocean between us. Seven time zones.
Yes, she’s brave and strong and competent and prepared and organized and confident and smart and much more. And yes, I encouraged her to be all that.
I’ve watched her do scary things before. She used to ride a 2,000 pound thoroughbred at breakneck speed through open fields and jump solid objects. She used to hook up a horse trailer to a truck and haul her horse to lessons an hour away once a week, by herself. She spent last summer at a camp in North Carolina taking campers out “on trail” for several days at a time where I couldn’t hear from her. Then on her days off, she hiked in the Blue Ridge Mountains by herself where, as my mom would point out, there are bears.
I like to think I’m going to be fine, but I’m not sure. Every time I have told people about her plans, they ask how in the world I can “let” her go do that. They ask if I’m scared or anxious or nervous or terrified. Yes, all of those.
But excited, too. I’ve been mostly excited for her as soon as the opportunities of traveling overseas during college were on the horizon. I didn’t study abroad during college and it’s always been one of my great life regrets. If you had asked 18 year old me what I would do with my life, “travel” would have been my answer.
But I didn’t and I haven’t, so I have encouraged my kids to. My oldest daughter went with a group in high school to Europe. She traveled by bus to Mexico with a friend to visit her family. Then she had the chance to do research in Madrid for five weeks last summer. I hope she continues to see more and more of the world.
But how do we, as moms, manage our fears and anxieties as our kids learn to venture out on their own? Most of the time it’s not such big things that they’re doing.
Our kids don’t start out taking trips abroad. They start out by taking their first steps without us.
And with each step, they literally and metaphorically move farther away from the confines of our home and out into the big, scary world.
So whatever age your child is, here are some reflections I have looking back that I hope I can remember to use with my youngest. Hopefully, these are helpful to you as well.
How Not to Worry
One of the keys to developing a strong, confident adult is to cultivate these strengths in our children when they’re younger.
Allow your child as much freedom as you can without being reckless. You may have to push yourself beyond where you’re naturally comfortable, but they can’t grow unless you give them space.
Start by leaving them overnight with grandma just a little bit before you think you’re ready. They learn they can make it without you and develop faith that you’ll come back, both important concepts for them to master to become confident.
But sometimes, it’s more important that you learn to let them have that space. They need it, and you know you do, too.
Find a Friend Who Doesn’t Worry
Fortunately for me, I’m not naturally a worrier. In fact, there have been times I’ve realized I probably should have worried about something more than I did. Usually, this is on a health issue I let go a little too long.
But aside from that, not worrying too much has served me well as a parent. It means I let my kids do things away from me and didn’t spend the entire time worrying.
If you weren’t born with a non-worrying constitution, pair up with someone who was. Find a friend who comfortably let’s their kid venture into the world and let their laissez-faire attitude rub off on you.
And even if you can’t become quite that relaxed, enlist their support when you need them to talk you down off the ledge. Having a reassuring voice can do wonders when you’re caught in an anxiety trap.
Construct a Skills Scaffolding Plan
Got a major goal your child wants to work toward doing on their own? Sit down together and develop a plan to scale up to the desired activity.
If your child wants to go to the month long summer camp that all their friends go to every year, yet they’ve never spent more than one night away from you, set up some steps to build up their tolerance for being away from home. As you both work together toward the goal, you each see how much you can handle.
It’s probably more than you think.
Consider the Realistic Risks
When my oldest was headed to Spain, I had several people ask me if I was worried about terrorist attacks. Nope, because I knew statistically the odds of a car accident every time she drove back and forth to college was much more likely than to be at the wrong place at the wrong time in Europe.
That doesn’t mean turn a blind eye to risks. Could a terrorist attack have happened while she was there? Sure, but so could a car crash on the way to the airport.
If we seek to eliminate all the risks for our kids, we can’t leave our house. Oh wait, if we never leave our houses there might be a carbon monoxide leak in our home that harms us, so that solution doesn’t work either.
Risk is inherent in living, that’s why we have to live life fully while we can. Don’t keep your kid from doing something just because it’s risky. To be alive is to live with risk, so be realistic about the possibilities of harm and make a decision based on facts, not fear.
Develop Your Coping Skills
Whether it’s yoga, prayer, meditation or wine (maybe that’s not the best coping choice!), find your way to breathe yourself through your moments of anxiety and worry.
But don’t wait until the stress is upon you. Plan ahead when you know your child will be doing something that scares you. Know what you can do to get yourself through that time, be it dinner with a friend or an adventure of your own.
Hide Your Worry From Your Kids
Okay, so maybe you tried all the above and you can’t stop worrying. You’ve got a kid who “scaffolded” all the way up to a big adventure, you go to yoga three nights a week, but you can’t stop fearing the worst.
At this point, you have to own your own worry and hide it from your child. It’s not fair to send them off on their exciting journey only to carry your worry with them.
You may have to book an appointment with your therapist for your first stop after you drop them off at the airport, but that’s better than letting them see how terrified you are.
They need our confidence and support as they make their way. If we have worries and fears we can’t work through, that’s for us to keep dealing with, not them.
Now I know it’s easier said than done on all of these things, but the world needs our kids’ competence and confidence. The more we instill in our kids a belief that they can do great things, the more great things they’ll do.
Which brings me back to Ellis. Now it’s her turn to finally leave the confines of the borders of the United States. And all that encouragement I gave her to make overseas study happen is culminating in her departure in four days. The departure of this strong, competent, prepared, organized, smart girl will be the beginning of an adventure that will change who she is and how she sees herself and her place in the world.
And even though I’ll cry as I leave her at the airport, I will have to practice what I preach.
So my answer to those people who ask how I can let her go is, I don’t really have a choice in the matter. There’s no other answer than to say, yes, go.
Go, see, do, walk, climb, eat, breathe, listen, learn, change and grow.
There’s no other answer for any of us. We should always say yes.
But remember, “yes” is a lot easier in theory than in practice.