There is often a strong emotional and evolutionary pull in parents to protect their children from fearful situations. This pull is necessary to keep our kids safe and teach them about their own wellbeing and survival, but when our children fear objects or situations that are not actually dangerous, parental protection can become a hindrance. It can keep children from learning and conquering developmentally appropriate challenges. It can alter what should be a constructive message, that fear can be worked through and diluted over time, to a potentially problematic message, that fear itself is dangerous and should be avoided. It can also increase childhood anxiety, especially in children who are particularly susceptible.
The parental protection trap usually shows up in three types of scenarios:
– Swooping in to do things for the child when they show signs of anxiety or fear, in a way that results in the child never facing the fear.
– Allowing the child to avoid situations that they fear or feel anxious about.
– Responding to the child’s fears, worries, and anxiety with positive attention that reinforces the behavior. This positive attention can include laboring over the child’s worry and/or coddling.
So what is a parent to do when they clearly see their little one worried? The antidote to the parental protection trap is support. Providing a warm and supportive response while helping children process and walk through challenging moments in the most effective parental response. Ways to support children are:
– Acknowledge: Accept that your child’s feelings are legitimate. For example, “Going to a new school can feel nerve wracking.”
– Be Specific: Try to find descriptive words that pinpoint your child’s feelings. For example, “It can be intimidating to go to a new school.” Other words might be daunting, surprising, difficult, feel unsure or uncertain and more.
– Normalize: Acknowledge that their feelings are normal and that others may also share similar feelings over the same situation. For example, “Other kids are probably wondering what it will be like too.” or “What I go someplace new I sometimes get nervous.”
– Confidence: Express your faith in your child. For example, “I know you can do this because you do brave things already like that ride you went on.”
– Strategize: Help your child think through their concern and develop strategies. For example, “We can talk to your teacher and let them know to check in with you.”
– Be Realistic: Conquering fears and concerns is a process that takes time, letting your child know this can take some of the pressure off. For example, “Every time you do something new you will get a little more used to it and feel a little less nervous, but this is your first time.”
– Check Yourself: Children are paying close attention to our words, body language, and voice. Be sure to keep your tone warm and neutral and your body language accessible and open. Don’t let your own worries and concerns find space within your interaction with your child.
The parental protection trap can be confusing for parents because there is necessary and real drive to protect kids and there are times we must step in as protector, like when they are being bullied or are injured. Also, parents must be careful not to push kids too far before they are ready otherwise it can backfire and increase child anxiety. Anxious children also tend to ask for more reassurance and rightly need it. There are also times when it is not necessary or helpful to make a child face their fear. For example, transitory concerns or ones they will grow out of naturally like a toddler being scared of automatic toilet flushers in public restrooms. During these times an easy work around is advantageous for everyone, like blocking the toilet’s sensor with post it notes.
To find the balance between support and pushiness, ask yourself:
– Is this fear dangerous, if it is you must protect them, if not you can support them in conquering it.
– Will conquering this fear be beneficial to my child in the short term and long term?
– Will conquering this fear help my child learn that fear can be worked through and diluted over time?
– Is conquering the fear developmentally appropriate?
– Is my child making steps, even small steps in a constructive direction?