We are experiencing a mental health crisis in our children that began before the pandemic and escalated through the pandemic. Some of this crisis was precipitated by an overemphasis on children’s safety and overprotectiveness on the part of parents. I find it interesting that children enjoyed more freedom in the 1960’s through the 1980’s even though crime was on the rise at that time. In fact, crime seemed to peak in the 1990’s and has since shown a decrease. Of course, there are still crimes but, overall, crime rates have decreased (See the Crime Statistics compiled by Let Grow.)
Still, news continues to catastrophize our awareness of what crimes do exist, contributing to continued and increased fear in parents. This has often led to parental overprotection and less time spent for children to engage in activities unsupervised by parents. This seems to have contributed to unhealthy coping mechanisms in children—less motivation, less ability to deal with problems in healthy ways, less independence, less confidence. The result of these unhealthy coping mechanisms? Anxiety, depression, substance abuse, defiance. I’m not trying to cast blame. We live in a scary world. It’s scary to let our children “go out into the world alone.” However, we also need to communicate confidence in our children’s ability to navigate the world in an age expected manner while teaching them to navigate it in a growing independent manner as they mature. Doing so will implicitly communicate confidence in their ability and will enhance their resilience and health. How can a parent do this?
Begin by identifying your own fears. We all have fears. Parenting is a scary business. As you identify your fears, beware of negative filters. Do a little research. Learn about the true crime statistics. Learn about the benefit of unsupervised play for our children’s ability to problem-solve, take healthy risks, and grow more resilient. As you learn about your filters, you can escape from the extreme thinking that the world is either terribly unsafe or “pollyannishly” safe. You can wisely discern levels of safety and allow your children to engage in activities appropriate for their level of maturity and self-care while teaching them to grow more independent along the way.
Allow your children to experience the frustration of difficult situations like going to a new place (one you have researched and determined as safe) on their own. Let them go to the local recreation center without you. Let them walk to the park alone. Let them take a bus to their friend’s house independently. Let them walk to the local grocery store to pick up a few grocery items for you. It’s scary to let them go out alone. But by letting them go independently (after you have taught them how) they grow rightfully and wisely confident in their own abilities and strengths.
Encourage your children’s curiosity. Encourage them to explore places and thoughts. Let them learn about ideas and locations.
Listen to what your children want to do and negotiate the parameters. Teach them to think through an activity or outing before embarking on that outing. Teach them to consider the possibilities and prepare.
It’s one of the biggest parenting challenges we face: letting our children grow independent. The first walk to school without a parent, the first walk to the park alone, their first independent trip to the grocery store, their first time driving alone…it all arouses a parent’s anxiety (at least it did for me). But we have to teach them the skills they need to “go at it alone” and trust that they have learned. We have to trust we have taught them well. Trust they have learned. Trust they will implement that knowledge. And let them go. Each time they do, our trust will grow, and their confidence and resilience will grow as well.
Every family has conflict. It’s
inevitable. Couples are going to disagree and argue. Siblings are going to
clash, compete, and struggle with one another. Parental wisdom and desires are
going to collide with their children’s push for independence. These skirmishes
can create a cold war within the family; or, they can promote an intimate
harmony within the family. What makes the difference?
Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas asked the same question. To find an answer, they recruited 226 cohabiting couples to keep an online diary of their conflicts for two weeks. They also gave them a checklist of behaviors to indicate how they resolved their conflicts. The checklist had 18 possible post-conflict behaviors that fell into one of four categories. (The 18 post-conflict behaviors and the four related categories were determined from a previous study by the same group of researchers.) At the end of the two-week period, each couple came to the lab where they engaged in “discussions” centered on two of their conflict issues, one chosen by each partner. The researchers observed each couple’s arguments first-hand in this setting. They discovered that a cold war or a more intimate family resulted not from the argument itself, but from which of the four categories of behaviors their post-conflict actions fell into.
Avoidance, one of the four categories of post-conflict behavior, was more likely to result in a cold war. Such practices might include “pretending” like everything is fine even though no resolution was reached, not talking about it, or just ignoring the issue. As you can imagine, avoiding the issue does not make it go away. It only makes it worse. At best, a cold war can ensue. At worst, Shut Up and Put Up can Ruin Your Marriage.
Letting go, another strategy couples use following a conflict, had in mixed results. Letting go can work wonders for small issues like whether the toilet paper goes over the top or the bottom (top, of course) or whether the toothpaste is squeezed from the middle or bottom (bottom, obviously). But letting go can prove much less effective in larger issues…and, in such cases can lead to a cold war. Gottman suggests that 69% of marital issues are “perpetual problems.” They are unsolvable. They may be the result of differences in personality (extraverted vs. introverted, for example) or lifestyle (desire to travel, level of house clutter tolerated, etc.). When it comes to “perpetual problems,” we need to accept the ways in which our spouse is different than us. At the same time, these issues don’t go away. Couples will continually return to them in their disagreements and arguments. To keep them from destroying the relationship, couples must learn to approach the conflict of “perpetual problems” with gentleness, personal responsibility, and humor. They must learn to build an overall environment of gratitude and appreciation into their home. Letting go, in and of itself, is incomplete and not effective in the bigger, more perpetual problems.
Gaining new perspective, another post-conflict behavior, sounds like a great option. We are often encouraged to take our spouse’s perspective. Taking perspective can help us gain understanding and build a willingness to compromise…maybe. But if the compromise is one-sided or given begrudgingly, it can lay a root of bitterness, lingering ill-feelings, or even anger at the lack of perceived reciprocation. The result? A potential cold war. So, quit taking your spouse’s perspective and become more like a fly on the wall instead.
Active repair, the final category of post-conflict behaviors, stood out above all the others in effectively promoting an intimate harmony and happiness. Active repair builds harmony through intentional listening, expressions of affection, and learning to give it up to lift up your marriage.
arguments…they can lead to a cold war or they can promote a more intimate
harmony. It all depends on what you do after the conflict. What will you do?
Avoid? Let it go? Gain new perspective? Work toward actively repairing the
relationship? The choice is clear. Actively repair will promote more intimate
harmony…and that is well worth the effort.
I hadn’t noticed until someone mentioned it. We were at a playground and there were no teeter-totters. My kids would not learn the thrill of teetering at the high end of the teeter-totter before plummeting back to the ground at a speed slightly quicker than imagined. There were also no merry-go-rounds, the ones you can get spinning so fast that the centrifugal force threatens to pull you right off the ride. I used to love the feeling of having to hold on for dear life and surviving before bursting into hysterical laughter! No, none of that in this playground. Instead, we stood on a large, soft rubber mat surrounded by mulch. The rides included enclosed stairs and “castle peaks, short slides, and balancing beams two inches off the ground. Don’t get me wrong. This was an amazing playground and my children loved it. Their favorite ride, though, was the spinning tire swing. My children loved to get on that swing beg me to spin them so fast their hair would fly straight back. Some parents wouldn’t allowed their children to ride at the fast spin, directed them to the slides and the castles. But my girls loved the thrill of holding on as the force of spinning pulled them outward. I just liked watching their hair fly back as they spun.
This memory came to mind as I read a review of the literature on play and anxiety published in Evolutionary Psychology. This review suggested that “risky play,” like the playground rides described above, help to prevent long-term anxiety. The article notes that we have become a society in which anxiety is epidemic and the overprotection of children may contribute to that increase in anxiety. Risky play, play in which we go right to the edge of safety, may help prevent anxiety. It helps us become more aware of our environment and our personal limitations. The more we know about our surroundings and the more comfortable we become with exploring new things, the less anxiety will hold us back. The more we know about our personal limitations, the more we practice healthy caution rather than anxious avoidance. But risky play does more than increase our awareness. It also represents a form of “exposure therapy,” an opportunity to face our anxiety in a healthy, appropriate manner and overcome the fears that threaten to imprison us. For instance, climbing trees teaches us to interpret the feelings associated with greater heights as information rather than simple anxiety that holds us back and “keeps us on the ground.” We can make wise decisions based on our experienced-based knowledge of the environment (strong vs. weak branches) and our own ability. This comfort with heights translates from trees to bridges to rooftops to airplanes. We learn to think wisely about our actions and related fears rather than succumbing to irrational anxieties.
So, what kind of risky play can help
your children avoid anxiety? Here are six categories identified in the
Exploring heights by doing things
like climbing trees, jumping, balancing or swinging.
Exploring speed as we speed along on
our bikes, skates, sliding, etc.
Learning about dangerous tools by
using knives, ropes, or tractors for various activities.
Rough-and-tumble play, like
wrestling, play fighting, or sword fighting with sticks, helps us learn to
negotiate physical interactions with others.
elements” like deep water, icy water, fire, or rock climbing.
“Getting lost” and
exploring our communities and world.
Of course, we don’t want our children to go crazy. We still need to teach our children the difference between risky behavior and hazardous behavior. However, when the opportunity arises, let your children engage in some risky play. Let them poke the fire. Let them climb the tree. Encourage them to do some rock climbing, wood chopping, vegetable cutting, and swimming in the deep end. Let them explore. You may be preventing the rise of anxiety and opening the door for them to live a more joyous life.
My youngest daughter had a wonderful opportunity to sing at DCINY under the direction of Eric Whitacre in Carnegie Hall. She was ecstatic. It demanded a great deal of work and courage on her part. She had to fill out the application, try out, rehearse independently, and then rehearse with the choir. She also made arrangements with her teachers to make up missed classwork, arrange travel to New York, arrange a stay in a hostel, and manage her time while there. She did an amazing job. I’m very proud of all she did, including her work to grow as a vocalist and as a person who cares for and loves people from all walks of life.
My oldest daughter is preparing to move across the country to begin her next stage in life. She has worked hard to get an opportunity to study music’s impact on identity for oppressed populations. She too is thrilled with the opportunity. She has worked hard to get to this point. She has already begun to make the arrangements necessary for a successful move. It’s exciting to consider who she might meet, where she might go, and what she might learn. I’m very proud of all she has done, including her work to grow as a pianist/musician and as a compassionate advocate and scholar.
I love watching my daughters grow and experience life. I anticipate other wonderful experiences in both their lives. It is all very exciting. At the same time it’s a bit…well…sad. Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled to watch my daughters grow and encounter new experiences. But, their growth also means they become more and more independent. They do not need me as much anymore. They are learning to manage their own lives without my help. They are learning to do it “all alone.” Go figure. Years of working to get our children to this point and now it’s here. Now, it’s time to let go. Well, maybe I’m not really going to just let go. I’m going to hold on tightly, but with an open hand as I watch my daughters take flight. I’m going to hold on tightly with an open hand so I can watch them “soar to new heights.” I’m going to hold on tightly with an open hand while trusting the relationship we have nurtured to keep us emotionally close, no matter how physically far they travel from home and how independent they become. I’m holding on tightly with an open hand so we can learn from one another, so we can share in the new experiences of life as each of us grow older. I’m holding tight with an open hand as we learn to relate together as adults who serve and encourage one another, support and strengthen one another. It’s an adventure, a frontier we have not yet fully experienced as a family. But it holds great opportunities for all. So we walk this adventure together, holding on tightly to one another with an open hand.