A few months ago, I was driving home from work when I saw a man doubling his school-age son on a pushbike, at dusk, with no headlights and no helmets. The boy was perched up front, legs swung over the handlebars. I arrived home and told my husband about the “f***ing idiot dad” I’d seen.
But I’ve since reflected on that day, because I can recall the look of sheer bliss on the young boy’s face. Maybe, just maybe, our kids need more risk-taking, not less?
On Saturday I opened The Sydney Morning Herald to be greeted by the headline: ‘Teenagers more anxious and depressed.’ According to the report, based on recent research, girls are particularly vulnerable, with increasing numbers seeking psychiatric help.
Tell me something I didn’t already know, I thought.
In my immediate social circle, anxiety, in particular, is rampant. Teenagers and 20-somethings too scared to fly, to drive, to go out at night. So fearful of success they avoid studying all together, or conversely, such perfectionists that any mark less than a 100% is seen as failure. Thousands of dollars paid out to psychologists and psychiatrists. They are part of a growing trend. In Australia, 15% of young people aged 16-24 years have an anxiety disorder, with anxiety now affecting a staggering 1 in 5 young women.
Being a parent can be terrifying. My seventeen-year-old will have his P-plates soon and we all know the stats on young men and cars. Increasingly, however, I’m coming to believe that the greatest threat to a child’s future health and happiness may be the demons residing inside his or her own head.
There are many theories why teens are becoming anxious and depressed, increased school stress and wider use of the internet among them. But what if some of the seeds of anxiety and depression are planted earlier, when our kids are young? And if so, is there anything we can do to about it?
There is growing body of research linking anxious, overprotective parenting to anxiety in kids, and — surprise, surprise — it’s mainly mums who cop the blame.
None of this is rocket science: if parents see the world as a threatening place their kids are going to pick up on that. We’re victims, as much as our children, of the distorting lens of the internet, but we need to remind ourselves that our kids have never been safer. Your child has about as much chance of being struck by lightning as being abducted by a stranger and killed, so next time you see another ‘horrible child death’ story you’d be wise to not even click on the link.
With this largely-manufactured ‘threat’ all around us, it’s tempting to wrap our children in cotton wool. Unfortunately overprotective parenting comes at a cost. In a 2010 article published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers from Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health noted:
….by restricting the child’s exposure to a diverse range of experiences, parents convey the message that the world is unsafe and directly limit opportunities for their child to develop a repertoire of coping skills and a sense of self-competence in dealing with challenges.
It may be even more than that. In her article, ‘Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences’ Norwegian researcher, Ellen Sandseter, theorises that childhood risk-taking may be important in evolutionary terms, that by encountering fear and overcoming it alone, children may help ‘inoculate’ themselves against anxiety as adults. If you think about it, it’s only the most recent — hence themost anxious — generation of young people who’ve been so cloistered from danger. I was a free range kid before the term was even thought of. Now we have playgrounds designed for safety, not fun, kids who can’t run, and overstretched mothers driving their overscheduled kids to and from activities and school.
Sanseter goes on to say:
In modern western society there is a growing focus on the safety of children in all areas, including situations involving playing. [This] is problematic because while on the one hand children should avoid injuries, on the other hand they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both physically and mentally…this may aid survival when, later in life, watchful adults are no longer present. The rehearsal of handling real-life risky situations through risky play is thus an important issue. Paradoxically…our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.
I’m not saying anxiety and depression is all parent-driven. Child temperament also plays a role. Some kids are naturally more timid, even from an early age, and it’s with these children we have to be particularly careful that we don’t stoke the fires of their anxiety.
So what can we do? That depends; very anxious children may need professional help. And if you feel that your own anxiety is a problem, please seek advice, as there are many effective non-drug treatments available these days. However, as a starting point, clinical psychologist Dr Anne Chalfant advises parents to encourage independence:
Allow the child to make his/her own mistakes. Ask yourself, “If I did not help my child in this situation, what is the worst outcome that could occur?”
At the end of the day idiot dad remains an idiot. No-one is suggesting we abandon all safety precautions, simply relax a little and allow our children more independence, less supervision, and the chance to take a few gentle ‘risks’ — to climb a tree, build a bonfire or walk to the shops without mum hovering. Offer your child some freedom, and you might just be giving them the best start in life.
What’s your parenting philosophy? Do you feel you worry about safety too much?
Benison O’Reilly is co-author of Beyond the Baby Blues: The Complete Handbook for Emotional Wellbeing during Pregnancy and Early Childhood (Jane Curry Publishing). A new edition was published this month.