*(Adapted from X-Plan Parenting, published by Simon & Schuster’s Howard Books)
Little League All-Stars. District championship game.
Bottom of the sixth. Tie game. Winning run on third. My son emerges from the dugout.
Standing with friends on a hillside above center field, I sigh heavily. I turn away from the field and drop my head onto a buddy’s shoulder. Anxiety and prayer come together in a moment of desperate hope.
Please, God. Let him have this one.
I am frozen in fear.
What if I make a mistake? What if this turns out awful and I’ve wasted all of this time and effort?
What if I fail?
Nearly fifty-years-old, I’m still haunted by ‘what-ifs’—the crippling terror of being wrong—and I’m sick of it. This is not the adventure I once dreamed of living.
My father-in-law once convinced his young bride that she was a terrible cook. She was so inept in the kitchen, she couldn’t even make Jell-O. After mixing up a batch, she’d stick it in the fridge and later discover a panful of colored water.
Just four months before the release of my book, X-Plan Parenting, my wife and I awoke to a living nightmare on a beautiful February morning.
Our teenage son was gone.
Not left early for school (as he sometimes did). Not asleep on the couch instead of his bed (another norm).
Left behind was a note, telling us not to worry, that he would be okay, but he just couldn’t take this life anymore.
“You’re going to get shot at your coffee meeting,” my oldest son, Ben, texts me.
“Maybe,” I reply.
He’s been following my dialogue with a stranger on Twitter. I fired off a snarky comment about a local news story that was getting national attention, and this guy challenged my knowledge of the situation.
“This is my hometown,” I shot back at him. “I know everyone.”
He immediately returned my volley (like any dehumanized bot). “Mine too, big deal.”
At that point, I had him. He couldn’t be a local—I just knew it!—so I called his bluff.
Anxiety and depression haunt most families. We try to exorcise the demons with therapy, prayer, prescription drugs, physical activity … you name it. However, the numbers don’t lie. Things are getting worse, and our kids are suffering the fallout.
Anxiety is now the most common form of mental illness in the US, affecting 10% of young teens. That number swells to 30% by the age of eighteen, until we find upwards of 40% of adults suffering from anxiety.
Anxiety and depression often hang out together, and our technologically advanced, postmodern lifestyles (including our warped online realities and social media melodrama) only seem to be dragging our kids deeper into this mental/emotional hurricane.
I was thirteen-years-old the first time I got thrown out of a Dairy Queen.
The manager came charging out from behind the counter like an angry drill sergeant. He glared at Andy and me with an iron jaw and then threw a stiff thumb over his shoulder toward the door.
“Out!” he hissed.
“What!” Andy demanded (although it came out Wh-Wh-Wh-What!). “What about them?” He motioned toward the trio of octogenarians—a balding, silver fox and his two blue-haired lady friends—seated two booths behind us. They were stifling laughs with handfuls of tattered napkins.
“Close your eyes,” I told my teenage recovery group. “Imagine yourself twenty years from now.” I gave them time to conjure up images. “You bump into somebody from this group, and they ask, ‘So, what do you do?’”
I let the question hang in the air.
“What’s your answer?”
As they opened their eyes, I saw a few glints of hope, but mostly just doubt and anxiety. Some of them had already lost the ability to dream, and that’s tragic. In all of them, however, I recognized a familiar fear—the horror of failure—twisted up with self-loathing for not measuring up to society’s standard of success.
When I meet with teens in addiction recovery, they know the first question I’m going to ask. I always reserve a portion of our time together for one seemingly insignificant inquiry:
“What’s something that made you laugh?”
This past week, a couple of girls had a uniquely silly experience, and one of them made a point to take note of it. “We have to remember this to tell Bert when he asks for something funny!” she’d told her friend. And they had.
Both girls were laughing so hard, it took several minutes of gasping and happy-tear wiping to tell their funny story.
(From Bert’s practical parenting side …)
Decades prior to devising the X-Plan, I was fighting a different battle as a greenhorn stay-at-home Dad. Long before I was worrying about my teenagers surviving an unpredictable world, I was locked in another epic battle.
The Footwear Fracas. The Stocking Struggle. The Battle of the Booties.