I’ve struggled with an anxiety disorder most of my life, so when my wife and I decided to have children, I couldn’t help but feel anxious about passing it on. And I know, you might find it ironic that a person with an anxiety disorder would have anxiety about passing on their anxiety, but ultimately that’s how this whole thing works. Anxiety feeds on itself, which is what makes it so difficult to live with. Anxiety also tends to make for hyper-attentive parenting.
I have three children, ages 10, 8, and 3, and I watch them pretty closely. In the back of my mind I often wonder if they are starting to show signs of my condition. I think any parent with anxiety or depression probably does the same thing. And like all parents, I watch to make sure my children are safe. However, according to a new study, watching your children too closely might actually cause them future anxiety.
Researchers from Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Reading conducted a study involving 312 families with preschool-aged children. What they found was that parents who used Challenging Parent Behavior (CPB), had kids with significantly lower anxiety levels.
Researchers described CPB as a parenting method that “encourages safe risk-taking in children such as giving them a fright, engaging in rough-and-tumble play or letting them lose a game, as well as encouraging them to practice social assertion and confidently enter into unfamiliar situations.” For any of you familiar with the Grit movement, none of this should come as a surprise. Grit is the idea of teaching children that failure and determination are the real factors of success. What sets this study apart, however, is that it is related to mental health, rather than academic success.
Ultimately, this study suggests that parents take their hands off the wheel a little bit and let their kids fall down and scuff a knee. We shouldn’t be afraid to let our children climb up the playground steps unassisted, or run a race with friends and lose.
This idea can feel pretty difficult to fathom in the age of helicopter parenting. As a father in 2018, it’s difficult not to watch my children like a hawk. Sometimes it feels like helicopter parenting isn’t even a lifestyle choice anymore; it feels more like a legal obligation.
I grew up in the ’90s and my curfew was the streetlights coming on. Now, I almost never see children playing in our neighborhood without an adult. Obviously times have changed, but we are left with the question of whether or not our children are actually any safer because of our hypervigilance.
That answer is that I don’t know, but according to this study, not allowing our children to take risks, particularly at a young age, can lead them to a future of struggling with anxiety. And as a grown man who knows all about the downside of living with an anxiety disorder, I don’t want that for my children.
According to study coauthor Professor Hudson, “While this isn’t a cure for anxiety, and we cannot at this stage determine causality, the results are promising in terms of parent education. By gently encouraging their kids in a reasonable way to push their limits, parents could be helping to reduce their child’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder, which is a great insight.”
Personally, I’m going to take this study to heart. I’m going to try and take my hand of the wheel a little more. By encouraging my children to take more risks, they’ll hopefully find more confidence. I’m going to let them run a little faster and fall down a little more often. And although this might give me a little more anxiety, I hope it will help my children leave my home one day with a little less.