A few posts ago, I dissected a sanctimonious “gentle” parent’s article on how we should continue to treat our children as if they were babies. One major concern I expressed toward the end of the post was that the author’s insistence on soothing every minor hurt and fulfilling every want for her children was harming them by preventing them from developing resilience. I then noted that rising rates of anxiety and mental health issues may be related to this sort of coddling.
A few days ago, I came across an article from The Atlantic that further explores the contributions our anxious, overcareful parenting can make to the development of an anxiety disorder in our kids. It’s too long and contains some of the author’s own neuroses (though I appreciated the mention of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which I experienced at age 7), but it makes some good points about how accommodating our children too much can actually cripple them. I was especially struck by the following:
“Even so, there is a problem with much of the anxiety about children’s anxiety, and it brings us closer to the heart of the matter. Anxiety disorders are well worth preventing, but anxiety itself is not something to be warded off. It is a universal and necessary response to stress and uncertainty….Yet we are doing the opposite: Far too often, we insulate our children from distress and discomfort entirely. And children who don’t learn to cope with distress face a rough path to adulthood.”
I liken this notion to exercise, which is the deliberate stressing of and, in some cases, injury to our body. Minor muscle tears from weight lifting create stronger muscles; the strain put on our cardiovascular and respiratory systems when we run makes our hearts and lungs healthier. Sheltering our children from every unhappiness in order to preserve their mental health makes about as much sense as never getting out of bed to ensure that your blood pressure never rises.
It also contributes to a warped view of the world that resembles the Tooth Fairy domain in Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather–a brightly-crayoned castle in which death does not exist. (When someone is killed, his body simply disappears.) Pratchett himself believed that children are better off for being educated in ways that acknowledge pain, death, and danger. From the same book:
“‘You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’
“‘IT’S A SWORD,’ said the Hogfather. ‘THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.’
“‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.
“‘What if she cuts herself?’
“‘THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.'”
Or, as G.K. Chesterton puts it, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
This is important, because the dragons are out there. Even the most highly privileged people suffer pain, bereavement, meanness, and death; many suffer considerably more, including poverty, neglect, and abuse. Our most intimate relationships may offer much joy and togetherness, or they may not; some fail to have these relationships, and endure loneliness throughout their lives.
What happens when parents lie to their children by omission and teach them that the world is like that shown on Barney and Friends, or that suffering is something that happens to other people? What happens when the child’s pet dies?
Actually, I know the answer to that one; my mother never told me that my cat had died, and learning from a neighbor about her death two weeks after it happened was considerably more traumatizing than the mere fact of her passing. My kids, in contrast, were kept well-informed about our cat’s decline and death, and their very natural, very intense grief has subsided. They will, of course, experience far worse losses that will require a longer period of mourning, but at least they now know that they can feel happy again after a death that affects them.
Back to The Atlantic: The article emphasizes that parents are not to blame for the origination of anxiety disorders, but that poor handling of children’s anxiety can actually prevent the child from improving and learning how to handle his or her anxious feelings.
“We now know that about 95 percent of parents of anxious children engage in accommodation. We also know that higher degrees of accommodation are associated with more severe anxiety symptoms, more severe impairment, and worse treatment outcomes. These findings have potential implications even for children who are not (yet) clinically anxious: The everyday efforts we make to prevent kids’ distress—minimizing things that worry them or scare them, assisting with difficult tasks nrather than letting them struggle—may not help them manage it in the long term.”
Precisely. When children are small, it is relatively easy to control their environment; if you have means and determination enough, you can create quite a nice little idyll for your children. To some extent, of course, we all do this; we want our kids to have happy childhoods. But as children grow, so does their world, and there will come a point when our kids must face situations fraught with unpleasantness, stress, and sadness.
Another point that I found interesting, and obvious in retrospect, is that when “we shelter kids from difficulty or challenge…we are not merely shielding them from distress; we are warding off the distress that their distress causes us.” As a parent, few experiences are worse than watching one of my children suffering, and I would like to alleviate that suffering not only for the child’s sake, but also for my own. (Anyone who’s ever dealt with a colicky baby can sympathize.) But sometimes our love for our children requires that we not prevent that distress and instead allow our children to learn how to handle it. Our kids need practice dealing with hurt while they are in our protective care, or when they are out on their own in the world they won’t be able to handle the problems that come with life.
I must make the usual caveat: I am no kind of mental health professional or child development expert, and to the best of my knowledge none of my children has an anxiety disorder or other mental health issue. Parents who suspect that their child may have such an issue should consult the proper experts and take their advice, not mine. But for our family, a few guiding principles have helped us help our kids deal with potentially upsetting experiences, which have included injuries, mean children, my miscarriage, and the death of a pet:
- Listen to the child’s concern. It may be understandable, it may be irrational, it may have every or no basis in reality, but make sure the child knows that you will listen without mocking or judgment.
- Don’t freak out yourself. This doesn’t mean that you must be a robot–I cried when Mischief died, too!–but you must remember that you are the adult, and if you can keep from conveying your anxiety to your child you will both be better off. Making the child believe that you are God and in control of the world would be a terrible idea, but you should impart to your child a sense that no matter what life throws at you you can get through it and you can help them through it.
- When children ask questions, tell the truth as best you can, in an age-appropriate way. Follow their lead when considering how much detail to give them. Children are very good at handling Heavy Topics, although you should make sure they don’t misunderstand anything you tell them. Lying will only store up trouble for them and for you; don’t do it.
- Let your children know that negative emotions such as fear, anger, worry, and sadness are natural and universal. Don’t let your children’s negative emotions upset you too much, lest they feel they must keep up a front of cheerful positivity to avoid distressing you; children should not be managing your own emotions.
- At the same time, keep your behavioral expectations for your children high. It is perfectly acceptable to feel angry, but not to hit or break things out of anger. Sadness is fine, but self-harm because of sadness is not. Managing emotions and expressing them appropriately is a major skill that we should be helping our children learn before they grow up; if we drop the ball in this respect, they’ll have a difficult time of it in adulthood.
- Finally: Listen to your instincts if you think something’s wrong. Behavioral problems, regression, new social anxiety or phobias, avoidance of previously enjoyed activities, chronic nightmares, and changes in appetite all bear further investigation with your pediatrician or other child health professional.
My kids may yet develop mental health problems. There is certainly a strong tendency toward depression, anxiety, obssessive-compulsive disorder, and substance abuse in my family of origin. I keep my eyes out for worrisome signs accordingly; but I don’t rush to wipe away every tear, cater to every whim, or fix every problem for my children. I love them too much to do that to them.