The Anxiety of Saying Yes
It begins, as it usually does, with a text from my daughter. “Mom, I would like to…”
The request sounds reasonable. She wants to go to a party with a friend who is driving, but although the plan sounds innocuous, I ponder for a while, my fingers poised over the phone. My stomach has begun to churn, and I detect the familiar hum of anxiety along my spine. Life with a teenager has introduced a new layer of fear into my life, and my anxious brain produces constant updates to an imagined worst case scenario: What if she isn’t safe? What if she doesn’t make good choices?
Teens are like cliff divers ready to jump into the abyss confident in their ability to land safely. As a parent familiar with the shark infested waters of the real world, my first reaction is to say no.
“Hello,” she texts again while I consider my options.
My life is ruled by fearful “what ifs.” What if she gets into a car accident? What if someone brings drugs to the party? What if some boy doesn’t understand the word no?
I think about all the stories of parents who thought their kids were okay, only to discover hidden drug use, depression, or any number of crises that teens are so adept at covering under a surface of normalcy. I have read parents’ tragic accounts of troubled teens, trying to identify early signs of trouble. It’s futile: the kids appeared fine; they were good students from good homes with a healthy social life, just like my daughter. Judgmental strangers always wonder how the parents could fail to notice. How could they not know that their child was in danger?
I don’t want to be the parent who didn’t know, so I use my veto power. Saying no makes me feel better; I’m doing my job as a parent intent on keeping my daughter safe.
“No,” I reply, but I don’t hit send.
Saying no is easy, but it may be cowardly. I know that what I see as a cliff might be safe. The waters that I imagine filled with sharks and treacherous rocks might be a deep pool filled with warm water and rainbow colored fish. By not allowing my child to jump, I might deprive her of important experiences and opportunities to sharpen the skills that she’ll need as an adult.
I stop for a second to consider my daughter. She has been blessed with well-developed common sense and hasn’t given me any reason to believe that she is heading for trouble. The thought makes me want to knock on wood. Trusting a teenager whose brain is developing at breakneck speed seems stupid almost to the point of lunacy. On the other hand, she’ll be in college, a place bursting with difficult decisions, in a couple of years. Wouldn’t it be better to allow her to develop her independence before she leaves home? Shouldn’t she learn to avoid and fight sharks before she jumps?
I erase the word “no” from the screen and instead fire off a barrage of questions. “Who is going? How many will be in the car? Are the parents going to be at home? I have to call them.”
I imagine my daughter rolling her eyes as she replies.
All adults know that the teenage years are filled with potential risks. We may not even need to look any further than our own past. Perhaps we only barely escaped adolescence ourselves, emerging battle worn with injuries that still hurt. We know that while adolescence might be full of exciting opportunities, it is also a time when doors slam shut. We know that teens who, let’s face it, aren’t always equipped to estimate the consequences of their actions might decide to blow off that test, try that drug, or hop in that car.
Am I unreasonable? As a high school teacher, I’m only too familiar with helicopter parents who never allow their children any independence, thereby raising kids who are ill equipped to manage the real world. Am I one of them? How do I know where normal protection of my teen ends and crazy paranoid sheltering begins?
My daughter has given me all the information I need, but I still look for a reason to say no while anxiety surges through my body. I imagine getting that phone call late in the evening, an anonymous voice telling me that the worst has happened. What if something bad happens to her?
Taking a deep breath, I banish my fear and summon the remaining sliver of common sense. Based on everything I know, this party is okay. She’s driving with someone I know, and she’ll be around kids I’ve known since elementary school. If parenting teenagers is about picking your battles, this is not one I should fight.
“Come home on time,” I admonish. Then, I add: “Have fun!”
The burden of my anxiety is not hers to carry.
I hit send.
Daniele Loose is a freelance writer living in New England.