For me, the middle-of-the-night knock on the door was actually a 3:30 a.m. phone call from a police officer trying to locate my parents (who were out of town and unreachable). He told me that my 20-year-old brother Nathan — the most kind, handsome, and all-around wonderful person I’ve ever known — had been killed in a single-car accident less than a mile from home.
My world fell away when I heard the news of my brother’s accident
I’ll never forget the feeling of the world falling away from under me in an instant. I’ll never forget that officer’s kindness as I fumbled over words, asking him what I should do, telling him how we might reach my parents. I’ll never forget what it felt like to call my husband and my other brother, to be the one who had to call other family members and tear their world apart. It’s the kind of trauma that never really leaves you.
We’d find out later that the driver was one of Nate’s oldest friends and he’d survived. That they’d been going far, far too fast. That they’d been drinking a bit earlier that night. They were being, like so many others before them, stupid young men.
That was in 2006. I’ve since been to counseling. A lot of it. I’ve worked hard to process my grief and trauma. I became a mom. I love my work and my first novel is coming out this year. I’ve led a happy life. But the feeling of missing my brother, compounded by the knowledge that, at any moment, a phone call or knock on the door could rip everything away again, never leaves me.
That trauma never leaves you. How can I let my son drive?
So when my 14-year-old son recently started talking about how he’d be driving soon, I both was and was not surprised when I started experiencing instant anxiety. How would I let my kids get in a car and drive away, either alone or with their friends? How could I protect them, tell them enough times to be careful, to not do anything stupid, even though their teenage brains would tell them it was fine?
I’m only about a year away from him taking driver’s ed. Just a little over two years from him being trusted, alone, behind the wheel, or riding around with his friends. They’d be teenagers whose brains, through no fault of their own, would tell them an accident couldn’t happen to them, that they would be fine.
Jacqueline Rech, MS LPC and author of From the Inside Out: Therapists’ Confessions of Courage, Strength, and Hope, acknowledges that switching from parenting little kids to teenagers is a huge leap.
Parents are conditioned to having control of every aspect of our kids’ lives. And we have to, really, because we’re the only reason they’ve survived. So when the time comes to let them go, it’s a learning experience for the teenager and the parents.Jacqueline Rech, MS LPC
My son didn’t seem to understand why the thought of him driving bothered me. “It’s going to be hard for me to let you get in a car and drive away,” I explained. He asked why and I told him that losing his uncle would make me nervous. I tried to make light of it, but I think he could sense my stress. He just said, “Oh.”
I hope my son understood that I wanted him to grow up, I was just scared
I realized at that moment that I didn’t want him to feel like his growing up was somehow wrong just because it would be hard for me. So I backtracked, saying “It will be hard for me, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get to enjoy it. I’ll do my best to make sure my nervousness doesn’t affect you.” He just nodded. I think he understood — at least as much as a 14-year-old boy can understand his mom.
But it got me thinking seriously about whether or not I was letting my own trauma influence how I parent. It definitely affected me when my kids were babies. I had my son just 10 months after Nate died, so the grief was fresh. I would cry every single night as I checked on him before I went to bed, silently pleading with God not to take him from me. That continued when I had my daughter three years later. It wasn’t until she was about five — and I’d gone back to counseling — that I was able to stop crying every night at the thought of losing them.
I don’t want my anxiety to keep them from doing what they love
I’ve gotten better and I don’t let my own worry and anxiety keep them from doing the things they love (even though I have to employ deep breathing techniques when my son is slammed against the boards in a hockey game). But the thought of driving — the very thing that took my brother from us — feels different.
I don’t know how to make sure I don’t push my own fears onto them.
Beyond seeking out therapy and medicine when necessary, Rech says that parents should tackle this problem in two parts; first, managing the immediate symptoms of anxiety and then starting a process of reciprocity of trust with their children.
You’re pinging out into the future and the thing that’s pinging back from that imagined future is fear. That causes anxiety, which can trigger PTSD. You have to first learn how to manage the immediate feelings of anxiety, which can be made much worse when you neglect the basics.Jacqueline Rech, MS LPC
Rech suggests taking care of your body first. Focus on getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and getting proper nutrition. If you find yourself in the middle of an anxious episode, do something that allows you to focus step-by-step. It can be big or small like baking a cake, taking a shower, or even simply moving from sitting to standing. “This will help you feel in control of that moment. Keep repeating it until the thoughts and feelings subside.”
When it comes to your relationship with your children, Rech says you should start the process of reciprocity of trust.
In our culture, as much as we value small children, there’s an underlying current that children don’t deserve respect until they’re adults. But there’s no magical switch that flips the day they turn 18 — respect and trust needs to be modeled from a young age. Childhood should be practice for adulthood. We aren’t raising them to depend on us forever.Jacqueline Rech, MS LPC
Rech says making “intentional deposits” into that mutual trust looks different for every family, but will show parents that as their children grow and head out into the world, they are ready to put into practice all of the lessons you’ve taught them.
When they’re young, this could look like assigning them chores, crossing the street alone, or choosing their food or clothing. As they get older, responsibilities should increase so that by the time they’re teenagers, there are enough trust deposits that your children feel comfortable and empowered to make decisions on their own and parents should trust that they’ll do so.
Building an exchange of trust with your child is very important
Even when they do irresponsible things (as every teenager will), it’s the parents’ job to hold space for them to come to you. You’re building a nest trust, stick by stick, and holding that nest in your arms. You’ll keep it there until they need to come back to that safe space where they can confide in you and seek you out for advice and perspective.Jacqueline Rech, MS LPC
Before I talked to Rech, I wasn’t sure there was anything that could make me feel better about letting my teens start driving. But Rech showed me that, while it will always be true that something awful could happen to my children, I can build the confidence and trust in myself and in them to know that I can handle it.
I want my kids to be safe. I want them to be alive. I don’t ever want another middle-of-the-night phone call and soul-crushing grief that makes it feel almost impossible to stand up on my own.
But I also want them to feel that first taste of glorious freedom, when you find the perfect song, roll the windows down, and drive away alone for the first time, knowing you can go anywhere and do anything. I want them to live (relatively) fearlessly, jumping into opportunities and toward whatever makes them happy, armed not with the weight of my anxiety, but with the assurance of my love and support.
I want their future to be an open road in front of them, filled with the possibilities my brother never got to experience.