09/06/2013 11:54 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

Anxiety Mom vs. Adventure Kid

Cheryl Dumesnil

Years ago, I reframed my understanding of courage by adopting this phrase: "Bravery doesn't mean acting without fear; it means feeling scared but taking action anyway." Since then, whenever I experience fear -- say, when my children want to ride on the outside of a cable car roaring down San Francisco's famed cliff-steep hills -- instead of thinking, "This is terrifying," I think, "Wow, I'm being really brave!"

As a person who has a contentious relationship with gravity, I've used this trick while accompanying my kids on the Cliffhanger "speed slide" at Waterworld, on a nail-biting trip across the Sky Glider at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and on a zipline strung across a gaping canyon that threatened to swallow my falling body whole in its craggy jaws.

Without my children's coaxing, I'd participate in exactly none of these activities, because I do not enjoy them. Not one bit. But I saddle up anyway, because I want to show the kids that one can confront one's deepest fears and live to tell the tale. I want them to see me as a person who steps up to challenges. Also, a couple of decades from now, I want B-Man and K-Bird to look back on their childhoods and remember that their mom joined them on their most exciting adventures.

The upside of this "confront your fears" brand of parenting? B-Man and K-Bird have developed a sense of confidence that I never had as a kid. In truth, I spent much of my childhood sitting on the metaphorical beach, worrying about sharks and seaweed monsters, while my friends dove gleefully into the waves.

Not so for my kids. This past weekend, as the three of us were flung wildly (not really) around a dangerously shallow (nope) lake, clinging for dear life (yeah, not that either) to a raft towed by a boat revving at top speed (not so much), driven by my (so not) maniacal friend LaDonna, B-Man and K-Bird laughed their heads off and screamed for more.

The downside of this "confront your fears" brand of parenting? The adventures just keep getting bigger. Whether I'm participating in the activity du jour or simply watching, I find it equally challenging to keep a smile fixed on my face while in my head Confidence Mom and Anxiety Mom battle for supremacy.

This happened this week as I watched my boys pick their way across a stream flowing through a local park, their river sandals wobbling on precarious rocks. The guys seemed apprehensive, so Confidence Mom coached, "Sometimes if you move quickly, you'll have better balance."

B-Man gave me the "whatever, Mom" glare he's been perfecting all summer. But K-Bird tried it out, bounding across the remaining rocks like a fox with his tail on fire. "Ha!" he called from the far bank. "Did you see that?"

Not to be outdone, B-Man sprang into action, bouncing from rock to rock, zigzagging his way upstream.

Confidence Mom threw her fists in the air, shouting, "Successsss!"

Anxiety Mom? Witnessing in horror as her kids now (sort of) sprinted across (not very) slippery boulders, she hissed, "What were you thinking?"

Confidence Mom: "Look at their proud faces! Listen to the gusto in their voices! Watch them move like gazelles, so sure of their bodies! Isn't this what we want?"

Anxiety Mom: "Shouldn't they be wearing helmets? Where's the nearest hospital? Do we have an ice pack in the car?"

That's what anxiety does: It overlooks what's happening right now and focuses instead on the terrible things that could happen five seconds from now.

Before Anxiety Mom undermined the guys' new-found confidence by shouting, "Careful! Careful!" I practiced what I've learned to do in situations like this: Breathe. Breathe. Then breathe some more.

After 10 or so breaths my anxiety had, if not disappeared, at least quieted enough that I could pull out my camera and take a few snaps of those swift feet and beaming smiles. Then, as I was sliding the camera back into our snack bag, I heard it: the splash, the scream.

I snapped my head up and saw K-Bird sprawled in the water, his face contorted in pain, his shoulders shaking with sobs.

A sudden calm fell over me as I locked my eyes on K-Bird's and walked toward him. "What a bummer, huh?" I asked, adopting a curious tone. "I wonder what hurts?" Surreptitiously I scanned his body for signs of serious injury: blood, swelling, deep bruising, limbs askew. Noticing his hand holding his knee, I asked, "Your knee?"

"And my face," he whimpered, catching his breath between sobs, turning his cheek to show me the pink slap of impact.

"I see that," I nodded. "So, tell me," I offered a hand for him to grip, "does it hurt more or less right now than it did when you first fell?"

"A little less," he sniffed, pulling himself up to standing, full weight on the injured knee, no limp as he walked to dry land.

"You must have braced your fall well," I said, "because you didn't get a single scrape. Good instincts, buddy."

"Yeah, but it hurt." He exhaled like a cartoon character after a near miss.

"I bet it did," I agreed. "Want to show me what happened?"

As K-Bird treated me to one of his signature slow-mo reenactments, I breathed into the space no longer occupied by fear.

Over the past couple of decades, I've learned a handful of tricks for tempering anxiety. But K-Bird's fall taught me something new: If confidence is what we feel when we realize what we're capable of, then anxiety is what happens when we forget.

When I choose to entertain anxiety, not only do I scare the crap out of myself, imagining terrifying future scenarios, but in those scenarios I cast myself as completely powerless. I forget that in a real crisis (oh, the irony) I tend to remain calm, clear-headed, and resourceful.

So that's my new trick. Next time anxiety invites me into her house of parental horrors, I will tell myself this: Remember your power; remember who you are.

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