By Angie Holstein, Registered Social Worker/Psychotherapist
As parents we are trying to do the best we can for our children. Parents are motivated by providing their kids with safety, happiness and opportunities for success. Most of us did not decide one day that we would be hovering and overprotective in our parenting style. These parenting styles develop quietly and often on autopilot as we react to the fear and worry that is inherent in being a parent.
Known contributors to this phenomenon in parenting is where you live. Urban kids are less independent as there often isn’t a sense of security in knowing your neighbours. Other contributors are your family lifestyle, work and child care arrangements (there may be limited opportunity to play or travel independently) and what other parents around you are doing (parents tend to avoid judgement or learn from watching what others are doing).
Trends have moved from the times that many of us grew up in where there was more freedom, time to be bored, no personal technology devices and more responsibility at an earlier age. Trends have changed and the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. From us, our kids learn habits, values and a sense of safety that remain ingrained in their behaviours.
The bright side is that there is a consensus among researchers that across developed countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and other high income countries, children and youth have never been safer. Physical fighting, cigarette use and sexual activity are all decreasing for teens. In fact, the primary risks to this generation of children is obesity and bullying, not crimes against children. Sometimes it can be hard to absorb these statistic when something in us still rises up to say I’m still not going to let anything bad happen to my children.
In the mental health field, we are seeing more children and youth with anxiety, depression, linked with limited responsibilities or stressors. So if our communities are safer and our kids have less stress, than why are we seeing so much anxiety in kids and their parents? Because experiencing and learning how to use stress is a significant part of building resiliency and good mental health. By very definition, mental health is the capacity to successfully adapt to life’s circumstances.
Teenmentalhealth.org explained this concept in the most effective way. They say:
“Think about your immune system. Exposure to germs on a regular basis helps to make your immune system stronger. It teaches your body how to react so that when your body is faced with a larger challenge, such as an infection, it has the tools it needs to fight it off. Exposure to daily stressors works in much the same way. It teaches your brain how to react (or cope) so that when you are faced with a more intense stressor, you’ve already developed and practiced the skills you need to handle the situation successfully. You have learned to adapt. You are becoming resilient. If we deprive children and teens of the opportunity to learn how to cope with stressors by eliminating stressors or by intervening to solve their problems, we’re actually making it harder for them to grow into healthy and competent adults.”
Here are some tips on what we can do as parents:
• Start with self compassion – it is often hard to manage the worry we feel for our children. Recognize and name it when fear for your children’s well being is showing up. Remind yourself you are doing the best you can and will keep trying. You can use a guided meditation focused on self-compassion when you get overwhelmed- this can reduce your own feelings of stress so that you can more effectively implement the approach you are striving for.
• When your kids do make a mistake, be there for them emotionally, validate that mistakes feel bad and ask curious questions about what they may do differently next time.
• Model and teach effective coping: problem solving, using social support, making healthy choices (with food, sleep, exercise and overall self-care).
• Ask yourself the following questions: When you were growing up, what risks did you take and what responsibilities did you have? What did you learn from those experiences? Later in your life, how did these experiences help you? How can your children learn the same life lessons?
• Remind them only once. Step back and let them rise to the occasion.
• Give them time to find some solutions. You can help them with brainstorming by being the writer not the “idea maker”.
• Let natural consequences happen: resist the urge to run to school to hand in their homework or swim gear. Small consequences have a lasting impression.
• Stop making their mistakes your fault. Stop taking responsibility for their actions. This is when we make excuses for them because we didn’t remind them – they pick up on this and ultimately interferes in their learning, building skills for organization and taking personal responsibility.
• Let them fail more than you intervene. Let them learn from their experiences. Find the balance.
Remember that parenting is a process. Letting them fail or make mistakes does not make you are a terrible parent (even though it may feel like it in the moment). It makes you a stupendous and phenomenal parent because you have your eye on the most important goal: preparing your kids for adulthood.