I have always been an anxious person, but through my teenage and early adult life I didn’t really notice it, hidden through false bravado and masked through my image, alcohol and other vices that stopped me really acknowledging or experiencing it fully.
I have bitten my nails for as long as I can remember, one classic sign of childhood anxiety.
As I’ve grown older I have been able to reflect more on my upbringing and the traumas and triggers that lead to my anxiety, but it is in having children of my own that I have really felt the full scale capacity for the magnitude of it. Specifically in its location in the safety of my children.
I’m not going to go into detail about my own traumas or that of those that came before me, that is not necessary here, but I am going to reflect upon the anxiety projected to me as a child, its manifestation in my own parental anxiety and the effect this has on children.
As a child, the constant mantra to all activities was to “be careful”. Whether it be heading out for the day as a teenager or something as simple as walking down the road or playing in the playground as a young child.
“Be careful you don’t hurt yourself” as I climbed the slide, balanced on a wall, jumped on the sofa, or spun around in circles in the garden. The simple activities of childhood, prefixed with fear of harm.
I never learnt to ride a bike, I never climbed a tree and never properly learnt to swim, all due to parental anxiety which in turn was internalised as my own fear.
It stopped me learning to drive, until I forced myself to when I was heavily pregnant. Even then, I am anxious behind the wheel. In my element on local trips but crippled by fear of long distance journeys. After 5 years of driving I have never been on the motorway and have been scared to even allow Si to drive us on one.
What am I scared of? In reality? Serious harm or death! Fear of failing through my own fault or some random accident.
It isn’t just manifest through avoidance either. Throughout my life I have been plagued by intrusive thoughts, vivid and aggressive thoughts and imagery of harm that would fly into my mind with no control. I could be sat on a train gazing out the window completely absentmindedly and BOOM, I’d have a full scale thought process of a serious train derailment, complete with death and my family being informed of my demise.
As a young teenager I remember on a number of occasions having these thoughts around my death, my funeral or the death of my family, mostly my youngest sibling. I was very preoccupied with his safety when I was around 10.
Being pregnant was like the anxiety suddenly got reignited and was stronger than ever, along with the intrusive thoughts I was plagued by fear and preoccupation with dying in childbirth or harm coming to my baby.
In time this shifted, but what remained was the familiar ghost of my childhood. The haunting echo of “be careful” passed to me that I then was passing onto my children.
At the start of the year we were all out as a family wandering through the park and I saw a couple calmly standing near a tree looking up. I too peered up and at the very top of this enormous tree was a very little person. Not much bigger than my 5 year old. This kid was higher than I’d ever seen anyone climb a tree. I kept thinking, if they fell there is absolutely no way they would survive or would as a minimum break their back!
I gazed at the parents who seemed so calm. They weren’t calling anything out or sending warnings up into the abyss.
I said to them “wow, I’d be terrified” and the mum looked to me and said “I am, but they love to climb, we just have to trust and hope”.
As I walked away I couldn’t stop myself glancing back, and looking up at this little speck in the sky. I was in awe of the parents and in awe of the child.
We walked past the world’s tiniest tree and I asked Ravey if he wanted to climb it. No word of a lie he got perhaps 2 foot off the ground and froze. He called out for help, scared to go up or down. In this single moment I felt ashamed, embarrassed and devastated, as well as a little annoyed I confess! Part of me wanted to scream to get a grip and stop being silly. But the issue was mine, not his.
I’m not suggesting the parents in this scenario had it right. Perhaps they were being somewhat reckless and could do with a little more fear, but one thing for sure is that I knew that I was crippling my child with fear. Fear of the unknown in a pretty safe scenario with minimal risk.
Many a time I have been in the park and all I can hear is me constantly telling my kids to “be careful”, “hold on”, “watch out”, “not too high/ fast /far” etc. And it’s not just harm to them, it extends to other areas of play too “don’t wave that stick you might hurt someone”. It got to the point that I was sick of hearing my own voice. It’s particularly pertinent when you spend time with another family who are much more hands off. You really see yourself from the outside and it’s not good.
Over the past year I have really made a concerted effort to try and curb my fear of harm being projected onto my kids and to encourage them to explore and discover for themselves. Part of the remedy for this was just getting outside and making an active choice to allow the children to live in the natural world.
As a child myself I spent all my time indoors or in man made outdoor spaces. We didn’t go to the woods or camp or really connect with nature at all. Through no fault of my mums but as a single parent of 3 children, who couldn’t drive, living in London, it just wasn’t readily accessible. We were mentally stimulated and had an abundance of toys and activities, they were just all safe.
I remember when we first ever went on holiday when I was 8, I cried saying goodbye to the ocean in Cornwall. It was something truly magical, abstract and removed from myself I felt.
This shift in being more ‘outdoorsy’ hasn’t always been easy and at times it’s been hard to be motivated. When it’s cold and damp it’s hard to get anyone in the mood but over this year I’ve found that once we actually get somewhere, spirits often lift and fun is had.
Ravey is a little older and at 5 he can sometimes be a bit of a grump and hard to convince that wandering around without the aid of toys or a playground isn’t boring but he is getting there. And slowly we are seeing progress.
He now gets to the top of the climbing frame at the park and feels pride. He is wanting to try and climb trees that he feels are manageable. It’s going to take time for him to overcome that fear embedded within.
Roo on the other hand is fearless. With mostly experience of a life spent abundantly outdoors and freedom to jump and climb, she goes straight for it (within reason, we are still scaredy cats trying hard to reign in the anxious warnings). And in doing so is more physically able. She is not inhibited by her fear, only by her physical limitations.
The work is ongoing and the journey has just begun. I’ve bought some open ended toys to encourage risk taking like rocking boards and climbing frames and we have embarked on the 1000 hours outside challenge this year to keep on track with trying to immerse ourselves in the world around us and allow the children to exist within their natural framework in a world where they can negotiate and test their own boundaries.
Like a ghost of anxieties past, haunting first our childhoods and then that of our children, the fear must be faced and challenged, to be overcome and finally laid to rest.
Generations and generations repeating the same patterns resulting in childhoods wrapped in cotton wool, softened by the effects of perceived threat. The reality being that we ill equip our children to trust themselves, to push and challenge themselves and therefore they fail to learn true safety.
How can you really trust yourself or your capacity if you don’t know what you can do and where your limitations lie?
We stunt them to limit their achievements and ‘play safe’ as opposed to pushing through and aiming high.
If this is you, you aren’t alone. So many of us are like this. It’s partly a natural part of parenting.
For now I’m trying hard to use a different narrative. To hold back and question whether I need to even say anything at all. Shouting out a warning really is of no use as it is so vague and teaches the child nothing of actual threat but merely an unknown. It instills blind fear.
I am taking time to ask myself what the actual potential for harm is and what I am actually scared of happening. Rather than holding them back I’m trying to consider what I can say to help them problem solve and navigate any potential for harm I may be worried about.
Instead of saying “be careful” asking “what’s your plan/ How might you/ what can you do/ what might you use…for how you might get across/ climb up” etc.
Asking “do you feel stable / safe” or merely volunteering and reminding of your presence such as “I am here if you need me”.
If I see something I am worried about that I believe they haven’t considered, saying “do you notice/ see how/ have you seen… the gap in the bridge, the rock, water, slippery step etc”.
And of course all this whilst having a mini heart attack with your heart in your throat filled with absolute fear, eyes wide like a rabbit in the headlights, but as long as they don’t see, its ok.
it’s your fear and your problem and it’s our work to do.