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My extreme adventure trip with my tween is nothing compared to what's ahead

Julie Ryan Evans is an editor and writer who has covered everything from Capitol Hill to the politics of preschool. A mother of two, a runner of races, and a gourmet chef wannabe, she currently lives outside of Orlando, Florida.

Watching me face my fear head-on is exactly what my son needed to see

It’s the first day of tennis camp, and my 12-year-old son doesn’t know a single other person attending. As we drive nearer to the campus, I can feel his tension rising, the questions swirling in his head. "You’ll be great," I tell him. "Just think about our trip and how terrified I was."

He smiles, remembering. "Yeah," he says, hopping out of the car and waving goodbye.

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Our trip was just a few weeks ago, but it’s one I’ll never forget and one I hope he remembers at times like this when he’s facing new situations and feeling less than confident, times that are becoming more frequent as we barrel toward the teenage years

"Feet up, head back!" The rafting guide’s advice came rushing back as I flew through the air and found myself under water praying to see a light, gasping for air in the middle of a river in West Virginia.

My son and I had hit what’s known as a hydraulic in the New River, and our boat flipped over, plunging us into the rapids. It took a few minutes for the shock to wear off and to get back in our boat, but we did. And then... we kept going, paddling together down the river for the rest of the day.

While I prayed for days before the trip that we would not be thrown from our boat at any point (I naively set out with a goal of not getting my shoes wet at all), actually our flipping into the river was the perfect lesson from this adventure-filled trip we’d embarked on together.

Do as I say, not as I do. It’s an expression that becomes even more poignant as one’s children get older. It’s a whole lot easier to tell toddlers that too much sugar isn’t healthy for them, then hide in the closet gorging on Oreos while they’re distracted by Caillou, than it is to tell your tweens they need to be brave, take risks and step outside their comfort zone when you’re cowering in the corner.

When it comes to taking physical risks, I’m a chicken. I despise heights, huge vertical drops or pretty much anything that makes me feel like I’m going to die. Roller coasters? No way, not even the kiddie ones. Frankly, driving down Interstate 4 in the passenger seat has my stomach doing loops. While I may be brave in other ways, these are the examples my children see most clearly.

So when I was offered a press trip to Adventures on the Gorge in New River Gorge, West Virginia, with an itinerary filled with rafting, zip lining and walking across 900-foot high, I can’t say I jumped at it. But as terrifying as it all sounded, the thought of spending one-on-one time with my son, just shy of his 13th birthday, and actually doing as I say was too valuable to turn down.

So off we went — starting with a six-hour Amtrak train ride, which would have been enough of an adventure on its own for me, but the challenges kept coming.

After the all-day white-water rafting trip, there was a bridge walk — on a catwalk almost 900 feet high in the sky — across a gorge. Tethered to a catwalk beneath, I knew logically we were safe, but my stomach lurched as cars and trucks soared above us for more than an hour, and the river looked like a tiny swipe of an artist’s paintbrush below. I clutched the railing the entire time, but I didn’t turn back. “You did it!” my son said, hugging me at the end.

The payoffs were incredible; the views, the exhilaration, lying in our beds at night, talking about all we’d accomplished. He saw me face my fears, and I felt strong in a whole new way. I have my own fears about the years to come, and I also needed a tangible reminder of how good it feels to take on challenges and push my boundaries.

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How much of that trip will translate into everyday life for him, I don’t know, but it felt more powerful than any words I can offer as he embarks on what’s an even more terrifying journey through the teenage years. Because while the physical risks are no problem for him — he’s never met a roller coaster he doesn’t love and would have bungee jumped off that bridge if I’d have let him — there’s much more terrifying terrain in the years to come.

Adolescence is fraught with more anxiety and insecurity than perhaps any other time in most people’s lives. All of sudden, the world they thought they knew begins evolving into something much bigger, filled with so many unknowns, and they begin to question their place in it.

Questions begin to cloud the brazen, carefree days of youth, and they become more and more unsure of just where they fit in. While there a few lucky ones who manage to propel through it with all the confidence in the world, so many others struggle and grasp for any bits of security and sometimes stifle themselves with a fear of failure.

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Some of it, of course, is just part of growing up, a necessary step in the road to adulthood, but if we as parents we can somehow help make it a bit easier, then all the better. So this trip for me was an attempt to help, in some way, show him how freeing it can be to take on the unknown and conquer your fears, no matter how small or large they may be. From walking into a brand-new situation to navigating friendships and seeking out opportunities that fulfill him, I want him to know that even though new situations can be intimidating, the rewards are usually great. Finding that trust in yourself is nothing anyone can give you, but rather something you develop over time by facing fears, one at a time — whatever they may be.

No matter what, there will be times we all find ourselves flailing throughout life, stifled by fear, with no clue how we’re going to get back up and keep going, but hopefully, during those times, some of the advice and examples I’ve offered my son over the years will help him keep afloat.

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