Can Parents be too Careful?

 kids fun without parentsOne of the things that really concerns me about the way children are being raised is the degree to which they are wrapped in cotton wool. Children of today are almost constantly supervised by parents and other adults. They rarely get a chance to take physical risks. They don’t get enough exercise. They don’t learn to climb, balance or fall. They are not allowed to use building tools. They are not given the opportunity to problem-solve and make choices concerning their safety. We adults have taken these basic rights away from them.

Think Back

When I was a child most children were able to play unsupervised from a young age. We walked to our friends’ houses or to creeks several blocks away. We walked or rode to school. We climbed trees and fences. We built and played in tree houses. We challenged each other to jump off shed rooves while holding onto an umbrella like Mary Poppins. We had fun! I used to feel quite sorry for a couple of friends back then who had overprotective parents who would not allow them out and about in the same way. They always seemed a little sad, nervous and bored to me, even as a seven year old.

But now, sadly, the whole western world has become like those families. Children are driven everywhere, and have adults restricting and supervising their every move. They are not allowed to take risks.

Health and Safety Madness

I worked in a children’s mental health in schools project a few years ago and was horrified by the health and safety restrictions that were stifling the opportunity for fun and adventure. We did manage to get permission to take a few children fishing in a highly structured and supervised specialised fishing activity centre, but the health and safety paperwork would have filled two shoe boxes, and going anywhere near the ocean was out of the question, even though we were in a seaside town. Schools and councils of today are terrified of law suits, while parents fear being judged as irresponsible. Parents are also scared, of course, that their children will be injured or abducted, but the risks of this have to be balanced against benefits of a more relaxed approach.

What Might be the Consequences of our Risk Intolerance?

Apart from the obvious effects that the lack of exercise and gross motor skill practice can have on the child’s physical development, the psychological consequences of an overprotected childhood can be really dangerous. The world is a risky place, so children need to learn how to manage risk themselves: to assess risk and make good decisions based on likely consequences. By not allowing them to practice these basic skills, we are stifling their cognitive development in this area and are likely to be creating adults who take stupid risks, or anxious people who see their world as a terrifying place to live in.

Parents Teach Children to be Calm or Fearful

Children learn a great deal about the world and themselves from their parents. If their parents tell them with words or actions that the world is a dangerous place that can’t be trusted, and if they are told that they can’t be trusted as people, then they are likely to learn to be fearful and doubt themselves.

When a child is climbing a fence, it is common for parents to shout, ‘Don’t fall!’ or, ‘Get down, you are going to fall!’ The problem is that these comments create that outcome in the child’s mind, so they increase the chances of the child falling. Children are naturally good climbers with a great sense of balance, and practice makes perfect. In most situations it would be better for a parent to calmly say, ‘Good climbing. You are balancing/holding on really well.’

Murderers and Paedophiles

Parents of today fear murderers and paedophiles more than our parents did. But the reality is that the rates of child abduction, which are infinitesimally low if you omit abductions by parents, have not risen over the decades. Paedophile stories are in every newspaper nowadays, and the law is prosecuting more, often retrospectively, but that does not mean that there are more dangerous paedophiles out there. I remember our neighbourhood paedophiles when I was a child. They were the men I, personally, stayed away from, because of my well developed sense of risk. And, of course, there is a certain irony in the fact that by keeping children at home to enhance their physically safety, we are actually exposing them more to paedophiles via the internet.

The Future Meets the Past

I read a great article recently about an innovative playground project that allows children to play in the mud with old tyres, timber and broken chairs, slide down a hill in a bin, and even light fires. Although adults are present, their intervention is very minimal. This gives the children the opportunity to play, problem solve, take risks, experience the consequences first hand, create and explore, while interacting healthily with each other.

What a healthy, happy, fun idea. Let’s allow our kids to do more of this. Let’s allow them to have childhoods worth remembering. Let’s allow them to develop their minds and bodies in ways that help them to face to world, and all its future risks, wisely, competently and calmly, with healthy bodies, smiles on their faces, and twinkles in their eyes.

How to Protect Your Children from Family Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety can spread through families like contagious diseases, and children are the most vulnerable to contamination.

Sure, genetic predisposition plays a part too, but a lot of it has to do with what we are exposed to as children. That means you can influence how much your children are affected.

How Depression is Spread

Partners of people with depression often complain of feeling as if they are living near a black hole which is draining their life force. They gradually lose energy and enthusiasm, their lives become restricted, and their home becomes a dark and dreary place.

Children of depressed parents can be even more affected. On top of this ‘black hole effect’, children learn how to interact with the world largely by observing other people, especially their parents. So if a child witnesses a parent consistently looking glum, or repeatedly talking negatively about problems, they are likely to copy that behaviour. Our behaviour affects the way we feel, so children of depressed people are at risk of internalising their parents’ view that the world is a negative place that holds little joy.

Depressed people have a tendency to withdraw from others, so they sometimes find it difficult to listen to their children and to respond consistently and positively to their emotional and psychological needs. This can lead to the children feeling confused and unloved, and can in turn impact on their self esteem and happiness.

All of this is a recipe for… you got it… another generation of depression.

How Anxiety is Spread

Anxiety can also be passed on through families. Children are programmed to learn what to be afraid of from parents in order to survive. A highly anxious parent typically sees the world as a scary place that cannot be trusted. They may well pass on their fears to their children as warnings, and become over-protective in an attempt to keep them safe. This can lead to the children internalising their parent’s fears and becoming overly anxious.

Also, remember that children mimic their parents, so a parent who is tense and easily stressed, is likely to inadvertently teach their children to behave in the same way.

How to Break the Cycle

You can take steps to protect your children from the negative effects of your anxiety and depression. Here are a few simple ways to start…..

  • Be aware of what you teach your children about the world. Do you paint a scary or dark picture? Try to relax, lighten up, and look on the bright side.
  • Think about how your children witness you interacting with others and them? If you want your children to be calm and positive, make sure you are a calm and positive role model.
  • Make an effort to connect with your children in a consistent way. Get interested in their thoughts and feelings. Listen well, and try to respond in compassionate and positive ways to their problems.
  • Be affectionate and warm, and praise your children liberally.
  • Make the effort to enjoy fun interactions with your children. Family games can be great bonders, and laughter is a wonderful antidote for depression and anxiety.
  • Exercise is also a natural antidote; so, even if it’s the last thing you feel like doing, try to do something regularly as a family that involves physical activity. Fun outdoor activities improve mood, and getting everyone out in the world can help you all combat fears.

Get Help ASAP

It is important that you take steps to deal with your own depression or anxiety. Focusing on helping your children should have the added bonus of helping you, but you might need to do a bit more to move into a consistently healthy state.  There is plenty of useful information out there in books and on the internet, but if depression or anxiety is continuing to limit your life, please make sure you get some good professional help without delay, for your children’s sake.