My Kids Inherited Anxiety and My Son Inherited a Learning Disability. Is That a Bad Thing?


When activist Greta Thunberg was asked on CBS This Morning where she summoned the courage to speak so boldly and directly to world leaders about their inaction about climate change, she said, “I have Asperger’s. I’m on the autism spectrum, so I don’t really care about social codes that way.”

Many would consider the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome a deficit, but Thunberg flips the script and in her tweets calls the condition “a superpower.”  

Being different, and thinking differently is essential, she said in the interview, “Especially in a big crisis like this one, we need to think outside the box, we need to think outside our current system, we need people who think outside the box and who aren’t like everyone else.”  

While my own kids don’t have serious neurological conditions like autism or physical or mental disabilities, they do face challenges and sensitivities that set them apart from their peers.

My tween daughter is more anxious than most and often labeled “shy” (which I hate) because she’s reluctant to raise her hand in class. She also refuses to go to sleep-away camp because she will miss me and my husband too much. I worry that she’s “too connected” to us and needs to learn to be on her own. 

As for my son, after a disasterous start to first grade–tears, refusal to do work, daydreaming in class–he was diagnosed with dyslexia, information processing issues,  sensory seeking needs, and fine motor skills delay. The school also determined that he met the criteria for inattentive ADHD, but after moving him to a new school for second grade, his therapist suspects that it was anxiety and the learning disability that caused him to zone out during lessons.

I’m not exactly surprised that our kids are more sensitive than most.

Thirteen years ago when my husband and I felt a tug that tug to have a child we paused, wondering if having a kid was a good idea considering our own history of depression and anxiety.

We consulted a genetic counselor who explained that any child we had we be more likely to experience anxiety or depression, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Genetics aren’t destiny. Those traits, he explained, can be expressed or turned on by one’s environment. 

Stressful childhoods fertilized the seeds of me and my husband’s sadness and anxiety, but that didn’t mean our potential child would be similarly afflicted, we reasoned. Do we NOT have kids because there’s a chance they might suffer from anxiety and depression? Did wanting children make us selfish? Foolish? After debating, the desire to have kids outweighed our fear that they would suffer from the same challenges we live with.

I still feel a tug of guilt when we drop off my 12-year-old daughter at an all-day camp, which triggers her separation and social anxiety. Her face crumples up and tears spill across her freckled face, “I don’t want to go!” she cries as I wave over a camp counselor and firmly push my daughter in her direction. I’ve learned over the years, that a quick goodbye is best. 

And my stomach twists to see my seven-year-old son stuggle with reading and writing because the dyslexia he inherited from my father make it difficult for him to match the letters he sees on the page with the sounds those letters and combination of letters make. 

Some inheritance, I snipe to myself. 

And yet, like Thunberg, I’ve seen those genetic “curses” or “deficiencies” become the very traits that make my kids extraordinary. 

My daughter’s quiet, thoughtful nature also means she has a rich and creative interior world that expresses itself through comics and stories. The handful of friends she does have are kind, silly, and loyal. She doesn’t feel the need to change herself or be anyone other than who she is. She’s grounded in a way that I still struggle to be. The point is, she can be anxious, shy, nervous, but also all these other wonderful things.

And while my son’s dyslexia and sensory seeking tendencies make the traditional school environment a challenge, he’s saddled with precocious verbal skills and unlike the rest of his family, has no problem raising his hand in class and sharing what he knows. Writing is torture because of his weak fine motor skills, but his intensity and big gestures are an asset when he paints. Brush in hand, he fills each sheet of paper and each canvas with color and energy that thrums inside him. 

Parents don’t like to see their child struggle, but here’s something I didn’t expect when I had kids: by helping my daughter manage her anxiety, by sitting with my son and reviewing letter sounds and sight words, my husband and I are giving them the tools they need to manage the challenging parts of themselves.

There’s no cure for anxiety and sensitivity. There’s not cure for a learning disability. So we’ve learned to accept, adapt, and, like Thunberg, reframe their differences as superpowers.

They are not like most kids, and that’s okay.

Will My Daughter Be Anxious and Sensitive Like Me?

Kid wearing an owl mask

Before my husband Rodney and I decided to have children, we met with a physician for counseling. I was worried about having a child given both our history of anxiety and depression. The poor kid would be doomed? Do we have a child anyway? Would having a child be selfish? How can create another person knowing that her chances of being anxious and depressed were pretty high?

While I don’t remember the exact conversation with the physician, he said that any children we had would have a predisposition for anxiety or depression, meaning they would inherit the propensity for a those disorders, but full blown depression or anxiety wasn’t a given.

Now, nearly ten years later, my daughter Zora sits in front of me with a stomachache, glistening eyes, and a voice knotted with anxiety.

“I don’t want to play capture the flag at climbing camp,” she says in a scrunched up voice, her dark eyes buried under furrowed eyebrows.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because I never get to climb on the wall. I just sit on the side!” she croaks angrily.

“Why?” I persist.

“Because there are always people ahead of me!” she says.

“Why don’t you push to the head of the line?” I ask.

“Because they won’t let me,” she answers.

Her dark red hair forms an angled curtain around her face. Her skinny arms wrap around her knees. She’s determined to be angry and left out.

I try changing the subject. “Have you had breakfast?” When she’s anxious, she won’t eat. I was like that, too.

“No.”

“C’mon, then,” I say as I lean over to pick her up. She struggles in my arms then grudgingly throws her arms around my neck. 

“What am I going to do when you’re bigger than me and I can’t pick you up?” I whisper into her ear as I carry her lanky frame into the kitchen. 

After a bowl of dinosaur oatmeal and a glass of soy milk, we’re upstairs in her room picking out clothes. She flops on the mattress and looks at her feet.

“I still have a stomachache and I’ve eaten,” she announces.

“Look, next week I’m off and you don’t have camp. You don’t have to go anywhere. Won’t that be fun to look forward to?” I say.

Transitions are difficult for her. New situations are difficult for her. Asserting herself is difficult for her. There are expectations to meet, not only hers, which are likely high and unreasonable, but also what she perceives others may expect of her a.k.a. mind reading. Reminding myself that I think and feel may not always be real, has always been a struggle for me, and I can see that my little girl  shares that propensity.

She nods and we get on with the business of getting dressed. Even though she is nine and too big for me to dress her, I kneel down beside her and pull a t-shirt over her head and mint green leggings over her feet and narrow hips. I grab her hand and we head downstairs and out the door to camp.

Once in the car, Zora and Jasper request no music or NPR. They’re not bickering, which means that dark cloud of emotion has moved on. I relax and pull out of street onto the main road. 

“Next year, when I’m in fifth grade, can we get a fluffy dog?” she asks.

“We’ll get the dog that’s right for us at the right time,” I say. My response is maddeningly parental and noncommittal, so I add, “I read that cockapoos are good for kids.” 

“What’s a cockapoo?” Zora asks. Jasper, who is four, snickers. I said “poo.”

“A cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle,” I say. Then, knowing that silliness takes her out of negative place, I continue.

“So… you and Jasper are either,” I pause for a moment, thinking “‘Evodneys’ or ‘Rodvonnes’ — a combination of me and Daddy.” They giggle. “Which name is better?”

“Rodvonnes!” she’s taken the bait. We spend the rest of the trip to rock climbing camp describing the characteristics of Rodvonnes, everything from sensitivity to loud noises like toilets flushing in public restrooms (all Rodney) to wide, freckled noses (all me). And, I think to myself, the sensitivity and mood issues. 

But so what? Yes, Zora is a genetic mashup of me and Rodney, but our own struggles with depression and anxiety aren’t her destiny. Zora is her own person: sensitive, anxious, change adverse, but also funny, creative, sarcastic, tenacious, and original. As her mom, I can’t mold her into less anxious, gregarious person. Changing her into something she’s not is a losing battle and a rejection of her unique talents. My job is to help her become and accept herself. 

“Tell us more about the Rodvonnes, Mommy!” Zora urges me, as we pull into the parking lot at the camp. Yup. She’s excited about her own possibilities.