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My Teen Has Anxiety: Is It My Fault and What Can I Do?

It’s a parent’s nightmare—I screwed up, and now my teens have anxiety and are in therapy. It sucks to admit it, but it happened for me.

Some of my decisions made their lives rougher, not smoother. So I wondered, is it my fault my teen has anxiety?

Before my kids were even born, and throughout their childhood, I read hundreds of parenting books and articles. I thought I followed all of the advice, but I know now that I focused on the guidance that resonated with me and unknowingly ignored some other parts.

When my teens were younger, I focused on achievement. It was very important to me, and therefore it became important to my kids. Now they feel their self-worth is based on their accomplishments.

One of my teens has struggled with issues of self-worth and self-esteem. According to her therapist, she believes her worth is based on her performance. She sees no value separate from her achievements. For her, anxiety and fear of failure go hand in hand.

I see tremendous value beyond my children’s achievements. I know their interactions with other people have a positive impact on the world, no matter how large or small. In fact, they have worth no matter what they do—or don’t do. But because I spent so much time focusing on accomplishments, I deprived them of knowing their own self-worth.

My parenting approach has shackled them to the idea that achievements are all-important, all the time.

I taught them that trying and not succeeding is okay—that’s in all the parenting books, after all—and I certainly modeled the ability to admit failure. But I instilled in them the idea that failure was only acceptable if it was part of the learning experience on the way to success. I made success the ultimate goal, when I should have been focusing on whether they were happy.

I’d like my children to be happy more than I want them to be successful, especially after seeing how anxiety and depression rob them of happiness. I know their success, as defined by society, will make me happy and proud because I can say, “Look what I did. I raised them to achieve great things.” But in their minds, if success is the only measure of their worth, they won’t ever truly be happy. Success can be fleeting, especially if the bar for success is continually raised, and happiness is about more than a list of achievements. I want my kids to know their value and embrace the pursuit of joy even when it doesn’t involve success or failure—so they can be resilient no matter what life throws at them.

Is it my fault my teen has anxiety?

I’ll never know for sure if I am to blame. And it doesn’t matter.

I know I have over-emphasized their accomplishments, but that doesn’t make me a bad parent. It means I have flaws—and that’s okay, because I’m trying to do better.

While I try to let go of my focus on success, I’m also trying to help my teens with the emotional baggage I may have saddled them with. I can’t help wanting them to achieve great things because I know they have the potential to do that. But that’s my flaw to overcome, and I’m working on it.

In the meantime, I can love my kids, be proud of them, and praise them for pursuing whatever makes them happy—because their happiness is the greatest achievement I could wish for.

Diane Moca is a freelance television reporter and founder of the YouTube channel and blog, Working Mom Warrior. She lives in the Chicago suburbs rooting for the Bears and the Cubs with reckless abandon, while relentlessly tracking the achievements of her husband, high school-aged daughter, and college-aged son. You can connect with her on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.