We cannot protect our children from every harm. We can only give them the tools that we reasonably judge are necessary as they become able to manage them. Your daughter will come home furious and hurt by the friends who rejected her. Your son will skin his knee on the playground. Our kids fall out of trees and fail tests and witness violence and sometimes, despite all of our good efforts, they are the victims of violence. It’s not fair and it shouldn’t be, but it is, and that fact reasonably makes parents anxious.
The parent without anxiety is a neglectful caregiver, but the parent with too much anxiety is no better.
The parent who allows fear to restrict his or her child’s world is cheating that child of necessary experiences, needlessly limiting that child’s opportunity to learn how to cope, and assuring that fear is carried on to the next generation. This is the overprotective or “helicopter” parent, always hovering nearby and, in so doing, communicating to the child that the world is threatening, that you’re not okay without me nearby, that a dinosaur might eat you at any moment.
Of course you’re anxious as a parent. The world is a very scary place. There is real danger out there, even if dinosaurs are long ago extinct. And so, as healthy parents, we must:
be aware of our own anxiety,
make careful judgments about the reality of the perceived threat, and
our children’s rapidly emerging coping skills.
It’s a balancing act, protecting them from threats that are too real and too much for them to handle even while we urge them to go out there to face what we judge they’re ready for, even if they’re likely to skin a knee and come home crying.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but let them know that they are always loved.
But more important than the words and the strategies, is your calm and constant presence. Kids who have at least one parent who is dependable anchor through it all have a chance to internalize that sense of anchoredness and grow up to manage their anxiety successfully.
Imagine your child is a boat and you’re the anchor. The rope that connects you can be longer or shorter, allowing the boat to drift further away or keeping it nearby. The boat will inevitably resist the anchor. It will pull away. The captain will try to cut the line. The crew will mutiny, cursing the anchor for holding it back and claiming that all the other boats float free! Why am I held back?
In calm seas you let out the rope a little more. In a storm you pull the boat in close, safe and secure. You’re there through it all, calm and firm and consistent. Reassuring. Safe.
Parent Pointer: Be an anchor to your kids. Manage your own anxiety and in this way help them learn to manage their own.
If you wonder whether your anxiety or your kids’ anxieties are out of control? Get yourself an anchor. Talk it through with a co-parent. Check in with a trusted school counselor, clergy-person or physician. Consult with a trusted mental health professional. Everything you do to make certain that you are emotionally anchored benefits your children.
Dr. Benjamin Garber is a New Hampshire licensed psychologist, internationally acclaimed speaker and prolific writer. He is the author of several books including the forthcoming, Letting Go, Holding Tight (Fall 2015), Keeping Kids Out Of The Middle and Developmental Psychology For Family Law Professionals and scores of popular press and professional publications in all areas of child and family development. He is the winner of the March of Dimes Distinction in Media Excellence award, an acclaimed speaker and professional educator. His website, www.HealthyParent.com, is a valuable resource for parents and professionals.