The 5 Highway from Los Angeles to the Bay Area is a lonely stretch of asphalt. Something about the mile after mile of desolated landscape seems to unlock every anxiety floating in the back of your brain.
Recently I was driving the 5 alone to spend the weekend in Berkeley with my daughter, a student at U.C. Berkeley, and I couldn't help but worry about my youngest son, 14, a freshman in high school. That day was Color Day at South Pasadena High School, a celebration where students dress up in the school colors of black and orange. My son and his three friends had spent the week shopping for and preparing for the day with multiple cans of orange spray paint and matching fake mustaches. I caught their school spirit, amazed that the notion of dressing in school colors had pierced the armor of my son's usual cool.
The night before, however, parents received an email and phone call from the principal that during the Color Day assembly in the gym, there would be "extra adults supervising," including some from the South Pasadena Police Department. The email assured us that such extra supervision was very normal.
I didn't think too much of the update that night or the next morning, but once I dropped off my son and his friends at school and began the lonely drive on that dusty road, I began to fret. My mind flashed back to earlier in the school year when two students at the school were arrested for an alleged shooting plot. Why the extra security? Was it really "normal?" Did the school know something I didn't? Were the kids at risk? Was my son in harm's way?
By the time I arrived in Berkeley, the assembly was over, and it had gone off without incident. While relieved, I realized that there will always be another "Color Day" -- another school gathering to worry about or another current threat making the headlines (the Ebola virus, the possibility of ISIS infiltrating the U.S., yet another school shooting, take your pick) -- to send me on a worry jag that my highschooler and older two children could somehow be in harm's way.
How to handle such fears? Anthony Adame, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the intern program manager at Hillsides, a Pasadena-headquartered non-profit serving vulnerable children, young, and families in Los Angeles County, offers tips for Nervous Nellie parents like me:
• Stay informed. Knowledge is your best friend when fighting fears, says Adame. Research the issue you're worried about -- what you learn will usually decrease your anxiety. For example, if you're worried your child's school could be a target for violence, you may discover that the school has instigated security measures that make the school safer than you thought.
• However, know when to turn away from the news. There is no reason to exacerbate a fear by diving head-long into it and, for example, reading every gory detail about the ravages of the Ebola virus on the human body. Instead take breaks from all media do something fun or soothing, such as take a walk with your kids or baking cookies together.
• Be savvy about the news cycle. Yes, Ebola has been on TV and radio 24/7, but that doesn't mean there is any new news to actually report. "News is on a loop," says Adame. "The same event is repeated over and over, making it feel bigger than it is."
• Talk it out. Sharing your worries with friends or family releases tension that's been building up, says Adame. The very act of getting your anxieties off your chest usually makes them seem not quite so large.
• Calm any of your kids' fears. Within our fears about our children's well-being is the concern that our children are also worried, according to Adame. Observe your children to see if they are showing signs of stress -- anger, irritation, fatigue, lack of appetite, etc. Sound them out to see how they're feeling and give them a chance to talk through any anxiety.
• Play devil's advocate with your worry. Write it down, then dispute the thinking, Adame recommends. Ask yourself questions such as, "Would statistics make this a rational fear?" or "What are the chances of this really happening?" You will usually come up with some basic fallacies in your logic that challenge your fear.
• Do what you can on your part to protect your children. You can't shield them from all the world's ills, but you can ensure that you are doing all you can to make their day-to-day life as safe as possible. "By controlling those things in your power, you won't feel as worried about those you can't control," says Adame.
You may never be able to cure yourself of all your worries about your children -- I'm walking proof of that -- but I feel better knowing that next time anxiety hits, I will have a few tricks under my belt, and I hope other parents do, too.
-- This blog ran in a modified version on Hillsides blog.
-- For more information on Hillsides, please visit www.hillsides.org.