Over the Christmas holidays, I read yet another story about how helicopter parents are bad for kids. Research shows we should be encouraging our children to take risks, not discouraging them from doing it.
Kids with helicopter parents are more likely to develop anxiety. I know all that, and yet I can’t help being a bit of a helicopter parent. I don’t want to be, though.
My friend recently mentioned that she lets her sons ride their bikes to primary school. My son is only a bit younger than hers, but I can’t imagine him doing that anytime soon. Stories of kids being hit by cars are stuck in my mind.
When my kids were climbing a tree on holidays, I found myself hanging around underneath, chatting casually to them, but feeling nervous they were going to fall and break an arm, and somehow thinking if I was there, I might be able to prevent it.
I don’t want to feel this anxious about my kids. I know it’s not good for them or me. But if you’re an anxious parent, how do you change?
Psychologist Clare Rowe says parents today are more anxious in their parenting style, and it’s creating anxious children.
“Parents ring up and say, ‘I’ve got an anxious child,’ and the vast majority of the time, it’s an anxious adult who’s presenting,” she tells Mamamia.
“Trying to broach that topic of, ‘Have you ever considered that you’re an anxious person and that you’re actually putting this on your child?’ is sometimes a hard conversation to have with people.”
Rowe says that she treats anxiety in parents the same way she would treat any anxiety – exposure.
“I’d work with parents and say ‘Right, let’s build a little bit of a stepladder. We’ll start off with you sitting on the sidelines of the playground and not following your child around the slippery dip and narrating their every move as they do it. I’m going to get you to sit on the bench, and not move, and watch them from there.’ That might be really hard.”
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She says the behaviour change has to come first. It’s something to put into practice when kids are climbing a tree, for example.
“That means forcing yourself physically, taking one step after the other, away from the tree, forcing yourself, even though you feel terrible, to back off, and doing that repetitively. Then the anxiety levels will come down, rather than the other way around.”
“There’s nothing we can do that will reduce your anxiety and make you feel better and then you’ll be able to walk away from the kids. You have to force yourself to walk away, time after time after time. Then you’ll feel better.”
Rowe says parents need to let go of their guilt if their children hurt themselves.
“It’s not your job to save them from every little scratch and bruise,” she says.
“You can feel sorry if someone is hurt, but I certainly would draw a line at feeling like it’s your fault if they climb the tree and they fall out. Later that night you can have a chat: ‘Why do you think you fell out? Do you think you went too high?’”
She says it’s about monitoring the level of risk.
“I wouldn’t have a problem with kids taking risks where the worst-case scenario is some type of minor injury. If the worst-case scenario is death, well then I’m going to hang around a bit more.”
Another key for parents is to think about what’s going to be good for their children in the long term, not just about how to protect them in the short term. That means letting them play by themselves and get scratched and bruised. That also means letting them go hungry if they don’t want to eat dinner and letting them get in trouble at school if they keep forgetting to do their homework.
“I sometimes try to tell parents, ‘Your goal as a parent isn’t to make life perfect and enjoyable and happy every day. Your goal is to have, on your child’s 18th birthday, a fully functioning, independent adult, and that goal does not sit with the same goal of having a happy kid every day.’”
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