When My Daughter Struggles, I Have To Remind Myself I Didn't Fail Her as a Parent

It's hard to watch my daughter struggle with anxiety and not feel as if it is a reflection of my own failure as a parent.

Single mother consoling her sad daughter at home.
Photo: Getty

I had an incredibly anxiety-riddled childhood, and when I think about why that was, it's easy (if not fair) to point the finger at my mother, whose own fears creeped into my psyche until they became ingrained in my personality. I was raised in the peak of stranger danger panic, and national rapture over stories like the murder of JonBenét Ramsey and the kidnapping of Jaycee Lee Dugard. My mother also seemed to find fringier, but no less upsetting stories, like a child being run over and dying in their mother's arms in a Trader Joe's parking lot or a toddler suffocating from a plastic bag that got caught around their neck.

My mother's fears and my own melded so early, it's hard to tease them apart. And now I think, who could blame her? I thought I would never be that kind of mother, consumed with dread over the million ways my children could be taken from me, but becoming a mother baked fear into my bones. I gave birth and suddenly I, too, couldn't help but click on the horrible headlines about a child crushed beneath unsecured dresser drawers or another electrocuted in a rare bouncy castle accident.

And while I thought I could keep my anxiety at arm's length from my children, it wasn't long after my now 10-year-old daughter learned to speak in full sentences that she began to go through an anxious phase about death. I turned to the Internet and my fears were allayed. Fear of the dark? Totally normal. Okay, I thought, maybe it's not my fault. Yet in the back of my mind I thought, but maybe it is.

Her fear of death and the dark ebbed and waned, but more fears and outsized reactions were added to the list. She began experiencing full-blown panic attacks just thinking about things that could go wrong in hypothetical scenarios. Fires. Disease. Earthquakes. She developed a violent reaction to the mere thought of someone puking, and still goes into full histrionics when someone gets sick in the house.

My husband and I sometimes joke that at least she won't be able to party in high school or college, but barely beneath the surface of that humor is my fear that she'll never be able to socialize normally. That she's set up for a lifetime of hardship, not only because of how the anxiety affects her mentally and physically, but because of the implications it will have for her life at large. And mingled with these thoughts is the persistent fear that it is all my fault.

It's hard to watch my daughter's struggle and not feel as if it is a reflection of my own failure. Maybe if I were better at managing my own anxiety, she wouldn't have picked up these intense fears and phobias. Maybe if I had caught it sooner, we could have avoided a situation where allowing her to attend a sleepover feels like sending my kid off to war without a weapon. In the midst of helping my daughter work through her anxiety, I'm being forced to face my own fears about whether or not I am doing a good job as a parent.

It has been a rough few years. Keeping my own anxiety in check has felt untenable at times, and trying to guide my daughter through the same gauntlet is a daunting prospect. I am trying to navigate one crisis at a time, not allowing my own anxiety to play the tape forward, creating problems that don't yet exist, but that's easier said than done. It's hard to balance my own needs and worries while keeping them separate from the ones plaguing my kid.

I am gradually finding ways to help her that I didn't have as a kid, and I hope they will be good enough. We're working with guided meditations and I let her talk about the things that scare her as much or as little as she likes, even when it's hard to hear. But then I find myself worrying that even the coping mechanisms I am giving her will make her rigid and inflexible. She won't be able to go to sleepovers with friends, and that protecting her in these ways will leave her vulnerable to social isolation.

As she reaches the age where sleepovers are not only a rite of passage but a primary form of friend-building, I worry that she'll get left behind by her friends because of her nighttime anxiety. Some days, I go so far as to think about whether or not she'll be able to cope when she leaves for college. Or will she be crying in her dorm room thinking about the possibility of an earthquake? But the truth is, adding my worry on top of her own anxiety isn't helping either of us.

I have to learn to untether myself from her anxiety and simply work on finding the best solutions we can to meet her where she's at. Sometimes it feels unkind to leave her alone in her anxiety, but she gains nothing from me entering that space with her. I can still acknowledge her fears without getting tangled up in my own, or at least I can keep trying.

Maybe my best isn't good enough, but in the end, it's what I've got.

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