Protecting Your Child Too Much Can Harm Them and Hinder Their Ability To Succeed In Life.
In May 2020, The Atlantic published an article about childhood in an anxious age. Children are already at higher risk to be anxious in our current world than, say, twenty years ago. This is, in some ways, a given, with everything that is happening in America over the last few years. Since the early 90s, rates of adolescent depression have been climbing steadily. The Pew Research Center shows that from 2007 to 2017, the percentage of 12-to-17-year-olds who had experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year grew to 13 percent (up from 8 percent the year prior). This means that in the span of one decade, severely depressed teenagers went from 2 million to 3.2 million. Among girls, the rate is even higher.
From 2007 to 2017, suicides among 10-to-24-year-olds rose 56 percent, overtaking homicide as the second leading cause of death in this age group (after accidents). The increase among preadolescents and young children is especially alarming. A ten-year-old feeling suicidal? This is heartbreaking, and incredibly concerning. Suicides by children ages 5 to ll have almost doubled in recent years.
Kate Julian of The Atlantic delved into this topic, attempting to try and figure out why this might be.
She found that the situation of our current culture is a significant contributor. That this, in a sense, is out of parent's hands. Our political situation and government are corrupt and chaotic, to say the very least. There is a housing crisis in play that’s been accelerating for years. Housing costs have more than doubled in the last ten years, while wages have remained largely the same. Child care costs in America are through the roof, as are the mounting, staggering sums of student debt. All of this results in what used to be the middle class, not struggling and edging their way into the lower middle class. 1 in 5 Americans struggles to pay their monthly bills. 40 percent of Americans do not have $400 in the bank for an emergency. The middle class is rapidly disappearing, leaving only the rich, everyone else, and then the immensely poor.
Our devotion to our devices causes little chips and nicks in our relationships, whether this is a dad perpetually texting during dinner and is thus, not fully present with his family, or it might be two friends meeting for brunch and one keeps checking her phone, signaling to her friend “I am sort of here, and sort of not. I am sort of interested and listening, and sort of not. I am kind of distracted, and sometimes focused.” These behaviors toward imaging ourselves hyper-connected are, in fact, disconnecting us. Today in America, there are sky-high rates of loneliness.
Racism is rampant. Women are treated like garbage (if in opposition to this last statement about our still terrible treatment of women, you need go no further on this topic than reading: Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly). Cities have become overcrowded and overpriced. People are working longer and longer hours, leaving them less available for their relationships, children, hobbies, and to care for their health (sleep enough, adequate nutrition, exercise)- you know, all that stuff outside of work?
So, as you can see, things are not looking so bright here in the U.S. as of late. This is partially why children are growing more anxious today. They pick up on these things, even if they do not understand them fully until they’ve grown older. They observe and notice things, tune in to auras, and watch how mom and dad act and seem to feel. They hear things said. They read. They speak with their friends.
Another major contributor to children’s increasing anxiety, though, is “accommodating” behaviors of the 21st-century parent, says Eli Lebowitz, who is part of Yale University’s Child Study Center called SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions). He says, “there isn’t really evidence to demonstrate that parents caused children’s anxiety issues, but, and this is a big but, there is research establishing a correlation between children’s anxiety and parents behavior.”
We now know that about 95 percent of parents of anxious children engage in accommodation. We also know that higher degrees of accommodation is associated with more severe anxiety symptoms, more severe impairment, and worse treatment outcomes.
So, what is accommodating behavior? Here are a couple of examples.
Your child is in tears because they haven’t finished a project for school that is due the next morning. You might sit down and talk with your child, trying to soothe their worries and coach them through it. Heck, plenty of parents would even just do the assignment for the child.
When parents do this stuff, though, their children do not learn how to handle difficult emotions on their own, how to be resilient, or even, how to accept and feel the consequences of failure because they made a poor choice (which is an important lesson- without the pain of these lessons, we would have no incentive to make a different choice next time). Instead, a conversation with your child the next day about managing their time better is a far more effective way to raise healthy, strong children who are far less likely to have anxiety issues later on (rather than helping them feel better about it or doing the work for them).
If your child asks if anyone in your family will die of COVID-19, an unequivocal “no, don’t worry” may reassure them now, but a longer, more candid conversation about life’s uncertainties will help them more in the future (and this response would, of course, be tailored, depending on the age of the child).
Here are some things that Lebowitz says he has heard parents doing, to avoid setting off their anxious children:
Going upstairs to get a child’s backpack before school because the child is scared to be alone in any area of the house and the parent doesn’t have time to argue about it.
Driving a child to school because the child is frightened of the bus, with the result that a parent is late to work every single day.
Tying and retying a child’s shoes until they feel just right.
Spending 30 minutes a day, on average, checking and rechecking a child’s homework.
Announcing one’s presence as one moves about the house so that a child will know at all times where to find the parent. (“I’m going to the kitchen now, Jenny”).
Accompanying a 9-year-old child to the toilet because he or she is afraid to be alone. Or, allowing a child to accompany the parent to the toilet for the same reason.
Allowing a child to sleep in the parent’s bed. Sitting or lying with a child while they fall asleep.
Preparing different foods because a child will not eat what everyone else eats.
Ceasing to have visitors over because the child is intensely shy.
Speaking up for their own child in restaurants. Asking a child’s teacher not to call on him or her in class.
You get the idea.
All of this coddles a child. It shields a child from crucial growth, learning resilience, and from the difficulties of life. This can create an emotionally weak, fearful, anxious person later on, who lacks resourcefulness and resilience.
It can also result in an entitled, spoiled child. One who is used to getting whatever they want, being catered to, and who is used to being rescued by their parents. This can lead to children who are lazy and don’t try. Why would they, when they know their parent’s will just swoop in the save the day if they need it?
A better approach from the parent: expressing empathy to your child for their suffering, but, confidence in their abilities to work through it on their own. Steeping back, not swooping in and helping, and allowing your child to start coping for themselves.
As they cope, they will become stronger, more capable, more confident. And in turn, the entire family’s well-being will improve.
The problem isn’t that American parents aren’t trying. It’s that they are trying, way too hard, and in ways that will backfire.
Anxiety travels in families. If a parent is anxious, it is far more likely the child will be too.
Shielding your child from their fears, failures, and emotional pain may help you to feel better at the moment, not having to witness their frustration, sadness, or pain, but it harms them over the long-run. Instead, be a supportive, empathetic, wise witness to your child’s learning experiences, which includes those that are painful, frustrating, angering, or scary. Offer them insights about it for their own learning, but do not save them from it. They need to learn how to deal with and work through it themselves. Do not do the work for them, literally or figuratively (emotionally). You will raise far more confident, resilient, brave children as a result.
Source: The Anxious Child and the Crisis of Modern Parenting (The Atlantic).