Stepping Back

Today my baby started her freshman year of high school with a smile on her face.

She got herself up at 6 a.m., did her hair in record time, didn’t have her usual battle with the tempestuous eyeliner, chattered away at breakfast about who she was meeting before first period and where, indulged my first-day-of-school photo session, and with a quick kiss and hug was on her merry way, upbeat and ready to take on 9th grade.

Last night, though? Last night was a different story.

Last night there was anxiety. Anxiety on an entirely new, high-school type of level.

And in those moments when she was sitting in my office voicing her fears, and then later, when I was lying next to her in bed at 11 p.m. listening to even more of her panicked, tear-filled concerns that were 80% overblown and 90% outrageous, I had a choice: brush them aside or take them seriously; listen quietly or interrupt with my own stories; or fix them quickly so I could get back downstairs to finish that glass of wine I left on the counter.

(I’ll be honest, that last choice was the most difficult.)

Freshman year of high school: time for parents to step back

From the time she was an infant, I’ve wanted to solve her problems, alleviate her fears, and make everything right in her world. It’s a natural instinct of parents, isn’t it? With my girls, each born frighteningly premature, that mama-bear behavior was magnified to astronomical proportions after seeing both of them with vent tubes taped to their mouths, IV needles stuck in their scalps, and tiny socks covering their hands so they couldn’t pull either of them out for the first, fragile weeks of their lives.

I’ll admit, no matter how justified, I’ve not always been proud of the resulting helicopter behavior.

But as they’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that guiding them through the anxious events and troublesome moments instead of jumping in to solve their problems is what will make them thrive as adults. I won’t lie, it’s not an easy thing to do, especially with one daughter in college 300 miles away who is in a flurry of stress over a major major change, and the other one currently in the throes of teen angst, both of whom are practically begging me to fix everything by pulling them out of school forever and moving us to a remote village in England where we’ll bake bread together and sell artisan wares to the quaint, local townsfolk.

I mean, I imagine.

Last night was yet another test in the never-ending parental exam I started years ago. The one I don’t remember realizing would be quite so complex and baffling at its outset. The one that weighs more heavily on your grade than any other you’ve ever taken.

And hopefully, I scored well.

Worried about not knowing where to meet up with her friends before school, how hard the homework would be, if there’d be time to use the bathroom during passing time, that first-day-of-school Honors English exam on Of Mice and Men, how she’d make it up four flights of stairs between classes, where she’d buy a drink at lunch, and just general fears that the very words “high school” induce, she was a mess.

But as much as I wanted to give her specific answers to every concern she threw at me, I just listened. Did I keep my mouth shut entirely? Don’t be absurd (that mama-bear will always be inside me). I assured her that she wasn’t alone in her fears, was confident she’d figure it all out, and knew from experience she could sail up four flights of stairs in under a minute. I told her that talking to us every night about what she did in class and sharing any concerns she was having with us—and especially with her teachers—would help her stay on track. I told her she was right: starting high school was scary and overwhelming. I validated her fears, let her know they weren’t absurd, and talked with her instead of at her. (I also offered to show up at lunch with some treats for her table, but for some strange reason she refused.)

One of her annual fears that reared its ugly head again as our talk was winding down was that she’d never get to sleep. But soon after I gave her a never-ending hug and turned off her light, she was out. Was it due to the two Benadryl she’d taken at 10:00 to help make her sleepy? Maybe. But I like to think it was due to her lower anxiety level from being able to vent, be heard, and know that there was someone in her corner willing and able to help guide her through the murky waters she’s jumping into…without taking over control of the boat.

Sure, some worries and concerns our teens bring to us oftentimes justify and demand our stepping in to use our adult knowledge and experience to solve them. Like most areas of parenting, we walk a fine, wobbly line between taking control and letting go; a line that gets thinner and wobblier as they grow into their own adult selves. Knowing when to step in, step back, or step away is key, and isn’t always black and white, but it’s critical. Because sometimes, it’s not until you take a step back that our kids are able to take an important step forward.

And if that means the artisan wares in England are a no-go, then so be it.

Michelle Newman Michelle Newman is a reformed stay-at-home mom of two teenage girls and lives in Minnesota, where she spends four months a year in hibernation and denial. She’s had essays published in several humor anthologies and on various websites, and is a Community contributor at EW.com. She writes about life and other distractions at youremyfavoritetoday.com.  You can find her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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