08/26/2014 04:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

For My Children's Sake, I'm Learning to Let Go

For as long as I can remember, I have been riddled with anxiety. On the playground, I studied my tennis shoes with the hope I wouldn't be chosen for kickball. I sweated in the 40-degree weather with fear that my face would resemble a pug dog after one swift kick to my noggin.

Dodgeball boosted my worries in middle school gym class. I cowered in the back corners, pleading to get hit in the shoes because the other kids might not have a strong enough arm to reach me.

Please let me stay on the sidelines!

I waited until 16 before I passed my driver's permit. Even though all my friends had their learner permits at 14 years old, my parents had to physically force me to get behind the wheel. Why did I think I wouldn't be able to do it? My wild imagination took over -- and this was before violent movies and TV programs were plastered everywhere.

Before I became a nurse and took a Microbiology class, I was scared of trying anything new or getting hurt; but that class introduced a severe kind of paranoia.

Germs everywhere! Run for your life!!

I probably shouldn't have signed up for the class, but it was a prerequisite and hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Unfortunately, when I lost my first baby as a full-term stillborn, my fears seemed justified. For my next two pregnancies, I ran around with a rented fetal heart monitor in my purse. Anytime I was worried about my growing baby, I would stop what I was doing, lube up and then listen to the soothing sounds of my healthy baby in utero.

You would think that after each of their births, I would be relieved and not worry; but then there was the chance of SIDS or choking or febrile seizures. It was never-ending.

Where did I come up with these ideas? Why was fear taking over my life? Some experts say genetics can play into this thinking. But I believe the behavior is also learned. Perhaps some people have a predisposition toward being "helicopter parents," but their role models at a young age set an example of how they will react to situations.

This is not to blame anyone in my family for teaching me how to be a cowardly mess -- for they obviously were taught that way, too. I remember my grandmother, who was a smoker, checking and repeatedly re-checking her chair for ashes before she retired for the night. Every night.

So when a child does something physical and the parent audibly gasps -- or if a kid falls down, and the parent quickly says, "Are you OK?" -- this is teaching your child to be fearful.

I didn't think I was doing this to my munchkins. In fact, I have been trying for years to do the opposite. But it's ingrained in my personality. After one child trips and bumps her knee, I gasp and ask if she is hurt. Then when I see it was nothing, I change my tune and say, "Oh, you're fine!" brushing it off, like it isn't a big deal. But I already made them anxious with my gasp and scared concerning remarks. Every time I do this, it is adding fuel to the fire of anxiety.

It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But I'm going to try my damndest to exhale when they trip and fall. No gasping here. I will look away and wait for them to come to me if they need my help. I won't ignore their needs, but I want to make sure not to make a mountain out of an molehill.

When my girls ask to climb a tree, I won't say, "Be careful!" They don't want to fall out of the tree. They are in grade school and know if you let go, gravity will give you a pounding. Warning them will only put fear and hesitation into their brains, and I want to end this cycle of anxiety suffocating our family tree, like an invasive vine.

Last week we went to the ocean for a family vacation.

Planes crash every day! Lord, they aren't good enough swimmers. There might be sharks or riptides!

This is not a healthy way to live life. I need to plug in the soundtrack of Frozen and have it on repeat for the song, "Let It Go"!

Needless to say, the planes did just great. No need to pull my seat cushion out in case of an emergency water landing. I didn't have to put on my oxygen mask before assisting my children with theirs. In fact, we played a game with every takeoff and landing. We named it Ride the Roller Coaster. As soon as the plane would lift off, I would throw my hands up in the air and shake them like I was riding the tallest roller coaster. The girls loved it, joined me and squealed for joy each time. They don't have the fear of flying because of this game. I took my fears and let them go!

When my family got into the ocean -- despite my fear that a porpoise I spotted on the horizon was a shark -- I made sure my girls didn't know of my concerns. I didn't have them exit the water, even though I had my finger on speed dial for 911 for five minutes. I successfully let it go!

As my girls' older cousin, who has been body-surfing all of his life, took my tentative 7-year-old out in the crashing waves to learn the art of riding, a wave of nausea and explosive diarrhea rolled in me. But I didn't gasp. I kept giving her the thumbs up from the beach, and prayed I could trust this savvy man of the water. I actually let it go!


Usually, when I collect my thoughts and feelings after a vacation, I determine if it was a success based on whether there was sibling bickering, whining or if someone barfed in the car. Was the place we stayed in clean? Could I relax and read a book? Did I catch poison ivy?

Not this trip. The true success of our vacation was that I let my anxiety go and let my daughters experience new things. They showed amazing signs of bravery -- and with that, they received self-confidence and the freedom from anxiety. Watching their freedom is the best feeling I've had as a mother so far.

Maybe there is hope for my girls to break the strangling vine of anxiety. That makes me exhale, just thinking about it.

Stacey Hatton is a retired kids' nurse and mom to two feisty munchkins. She blogs at

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