A child playing in a forest alone.

Family Health

Managing the Line Between Keeping Kids Safe and Overprotecting Them

Dec 7, 2018

1986, I was about 7 years old and my brother was 9. We were living in Scarborough, Ont. My mother regularly sent us on errands to the local mall. We took the money, embarked upon the 2-kilometre walk, crossed a major intersection, took a short cut through a patch of woods, made our purchase and returned home. We did this without hesitation or fear.

Was this dangerous? Was the world safer back then? Or has media just provided us with greater exposure to the dangers out there and made us more hypervigilant?

We are teaching dependency, and it is being fuelled by our fears.

I’m not sure I can answer these questions, but I am certain that the independence afforded to me when I was younger almost never happens today. In 2018, we over-structure and over-program everything for our children. As parents, we linger at birthday parties and sporting events instead of dropping kids off. We created the term “play date.” Our 10-year-old kids have cell phones so that we can track their whereabouts.

How did we get here?


Recommended Reading: 5 Ways to Build Your Child's Resilience in an Anxious World

Fear is perhaps the most powerful emotion. It tells us when things are unsafe and gives us energy to save ourselves and others by eliminating or avoiding threats in our environment. Once the danger is removed, we feel better, which is reinforcing to us — we continue to use the same strategies to manage our fears in the future. The problem is that we are parenting from our own emotional priorities, which obscures our ability to see that our attempts to maintain safety inadvertently give our children the message that they might not be safe.

“I don’t want you playing outside unless I am watching,” is akin to “I don’t want you playing outside because there is something dangerous out there.” We are teaching dependency, and it is being fuelled by our fears.

One solution is finding a way to foster resiliency, despite the mounting fears that our children are unsafe — real or imagined. Resiliency is a complex psychological term, which is outside of the scope of this article for us to unpack. But just consider a bunch of synonyms like toughness, adaptability, perseverance and we will be ok for this discussion.

Here are four considerations to help build resiliency in your kids:

Don't sheild them from hardship. My son is 9 years old and plays competitive/academy soccer. But I should use the word "competitive" loosely because they technically don’t keep score. There are no winners and losers, no trophies, mercy rules, equal playing time, retreat lines, and don’t you dare celebrate too much after winning. If the first-time young people deal with hardship is first-year university — because they have never failed, because you have always been there to help them with their homework, booked and driven them to their appointments, cooked their meals, and done their laundry — university will be a rude awakening. Young people need enough exposure, in a developmentally sensitive and appropriate way, to hardship.

However, this means that we have to park our unjustifiable/unrealistic fears and start to balance support with allowing our children to fail sometimes. Their exposure to this needs to be gradual and managed with supportive/validating messaging, but it is ok for them to struggle every now and then.

Support them through adversity. No amount of exposure to adversity is going to be useful unless your child has the right type of support to manage it. Your attunement and acceptance of your child is critical. That is, your child knowing that they have a supportive person in their lives who they can trust, and who is fair and nonjudgmental, is critical to their ability to tackle adversity. But this does not mean that we should fragilize our children and do everything for them. This form of support is offered by demonstrating that you understand, and showing that you can be an emotional support to them during difficult times.

Children need to experience all sorts of emotions for them to thrive.

 Recommended Reading: Here's When to Seek Help for Your Child's Mental Health

Let them experience and learn to manage negative emotions. Exposure to new situations and adversity can bring about a whole host of emotions and this is especially true for children. Fear, excitement, nervousness and joy are just some of the many feelings a child may experience in the face of uncertainty. The natural tendency may be to steer your child towards the path of more favourable emotions like joy and happiness, but children need to experience all sorts of emotions for them to thrive.

With that comes the need for them to learn how to identify and deal with these feelings. Kids need to learn how to notice, and accurately communicate their feelings to others, which is step one to learning how to regulate their emotions. Asking them to describe and then label that particular feeling is a great first step. If your child is having more difficulty in this area than you would expect, and seems to be highly emotionally sensitive and reactive, you might want to consider seeking support from a mental health professional.

Build their confidence with things they are good at. Try to foster skill development around the things that your child cares about and values. Building mastery helps with identity development and will help to buffer against the strong emotional reactions that come with the experience of failure in other areas of life. You may want to start off with little challenges giving your child the opportunity to succeed and build confidence. Again, this might take parking some of our own priorities and us accepting that we are not going to re-live our youth through our children.

This is not a comprehensive list of the factors that foster resiliency in kids, but it is a start. I am hopeful that we can raise a generation of kids that will have the skills to cope with the harsh realities of today’s social, academic and economic climates.

However, it will take a willingness from us parents to face our own fears and allow our children to experience some adversity, while simultaneously preparing them by helping them build mastery, communicate their emotions accurately and foster strong relationships that are built on trust.

Article Author Dr. Kofi-Len Belfon
Dr. Kofi-Len Belfon

Read more from Dr. Belfon here.

Dr. Kofi-Len Belfon is a trustee with the Psychology Foundation of Canada. Dr. Belfon is a registered clinical psychologist who works with children, adolescents and families in his capacity as psychologist and director at Belfon Psychological Services, as well as in his role as Clinical Lead at Kinark Child and Family Services.

Follow The Psychology Foundation on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and visit their website at psychologyfoundation.org.

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