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My Teenage Son’s Anxiety Keeps Him Up at Night

My son, who is fourteen, asked me just yesterday, “Mom, do you think I will be a successful man?” 

I had a moment of brilliance (which happens approximately once every forty years) and, instead of answering quickly in the affirmative, I inquired further: “Well, I guess that depends on your vision of what success looks like…”

We had been talking in previous days about an adult friend of mine who job hops and has a complicated relationship with recreational drugs and, because CPS is involved, can only visit with his daughter in supervised situations. This friend of mine is named Pete.

Dead serious, my son looks at me and says, “Success looks like not being Pete.”

Holy smokes, I thought.

This bright and thoughtful and introspective teenager is genuinely concerned that his life will somehow go off course, like majorly off course. In talking with him further, it’s almost as though he believes that Life (with a capital “L”) is conniving in that way, deceptively tricking young people into the pitfalls of failure, addiction, poverty, and misery.

You see, my son isn’t the reckless, impulsive, act-before-you-think type teenage boy whose frontal lobe is seriously underdeveloped, the one who is often depicted in TV and movies. Quite the contrary, I wonder sometimes if my son’s frontal lobe is over-developed; he thinks and thinks and thinks before he makes decisions, considers the worst case in every situation, and – apparently – has big fears about his future.

Let me be clear: I’m not bragging. Being the mom of an overthinking, anxious kiddo isn’t paradise. While I don’t have to stress about him getting into trouble or forgetting to study for tests, I do worry about him constantly. 

Will he relax enough to enjoy himself?
Will he take a chance or two?
Will he be brave enough to be his true self with people?
Will he be a worrier his whole life?
Will he let his nerves get in the way of opportunity?
Will he be happy?

Taking responsibility for yourself is one thing (I think we, as a society, could all use a little more of it), but feeling overly responsible is another. It’s exhausting. It’s pressure-packed. And it’s an unhealthy way to live. 

Here are the things on my son’s mind about his future, the things that keep him up at night:

It’s College or Nothing

At least in America, there’s a distinct misnomer that the only way to be successful is to go to a really, really good college, get a really, really good degree, and get a really, really good job. Now, I’m not the mom who is promoting free-love commune living at age eighteen, but I’m also not the one who thinks in such narrow terms. I’m not sure if it’s the education system or cultural influence (cuz it sure didn’t come from me), but my son is of the belief that every single solitary assignment in middle school has the potential to make or break his high school success and therefore his college success and therefore his success as a person. I would like him to go to college, but it’s not everything. Right?

Mistakes Are Not Allowed

“Perfection is overrated” is a quote I disperse among my children regularly. But that’s easy to say, when you’re not a perfectionist. My son is. He catastrophizes every mistake he makes, from being five minutes late to his choir rehearsal to an A- instead of an A+. The disappointment he experiences when he doesn’t meet his own expectations is visceral. What I want to impress upon him is that there is virtually no mistake that cannot be recovered from. Mistakes are growth opportunities, yeah? I want to communicate to my son that we need not beat ourselves up over them.

Wealth = Success

Somewhere along the way, my son began confusing money with success. Magazines? Advertisements? Movies? TV? Social media? Saturating in all of it is sending the message that wealth = success = happiness. What’s the definition of a “good” job, I ask? A job that brings fulfillment to the person doing it, I say. Does the money earned from said job need to make ends meet? Yes. Does it need to buy a penthouse? No. I want my son to know that I don’t care how much money he earns (just so long as he can stand on his two feet). I care more about how he loves, how he engages with the world, how he gives back. Forget the penthouse.

There Will Be No Safety Net

I admit, I often say to my offspring, “Our basement is not an option.” It’s code for: When you graduate from high school, I’m kicking you out. But I’m beginning to think that my son has equated this message with no support at all. He knows we’re cutting the purse strings, but I want him to know that there’s always a safety net of support and love and – let’s face it – probably money, too, if push comes to shove. It’s a delicate balance, offering ourselves as a resource but not breeding entitlement. I think my son is of the belief that we’re completely out of the picture when he leaves the house. And that’s simply not true.

Homelessness Is Just Around The Corner

Famous life coach Martha Beck says that the number one worry, when she cuts to the core of her clients’ woes, is that they will end up as Bag Ladies, that somehow they will lose their means for earning money and wind up on the street. Interesting that it is starting at age 14 for my son. I don’t mean to suggest that he’s not resilient or resourceful; when in a pinch, the guy can figure things out. It’s more that he believes Life is unforgiving and cruel; there’s this sense that it’s out to get him, particularly that it will render him penniless if he doesn’t make perfect (there’s that word again) life choices. Life is hard, but it’s not that mean. I don’t want him to be scared of it, I want him – instead – to trust and lean into it a bit.

If you have a son or daughter like mine, the worried, over-responsible kind, let’s resolve these myths in their minds. Let’s encourage them to know that success can look a lot of different ways, that mistakes aren’t the end of the world, and that they will most likely not, in fact, wind up a Bag Lady. 

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