How not to be Overprotective Parents
The power of risk-taking
Children grow through risk-taking. It is crucially important at all ages. Children learn self-confidence by taking on a challenge and accomplishing it. The challenge cannot be too easy, or he will not get a proper sense of achievement.
Sometimes the hardest thing for a parent is letting go. Risks must be calculated. Such as:
- Auditioning for a school play;
- Attempting a flip on the trampoline, or
- Going out of his depth in the swimming pool for the first time.
These “first times” are how a child progresses both in physical ability and mental strength. Things may not go to plan and that’s okay. As long as the risk is calculated and not reckless, whatever the outcome there will be plenty to learn. For example: “I didn’t manage the flip but I can cope even if I fall on my face!”, or “I didn’t get chosen for the main part in the show but I discovered I am good at dancing”).
Outdoor time is crucial to this. The outdoors is so much less predictable and “managed” than the indoors, so it allows for new challenges and regular risk-taking. What happens if I try sitting on that branch? Is the grass soft enough to break my fall?
How do I teach my child the balance between too much risk-taking and not enough?
Learning to evaluate risks for themselves
Younger children need their parents on hand most of the time to evaluate the risk for them. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which plans and makes decisions, is not well developed. Young children are therefore likely to be driven by their emotions rather than rational decisions.
It goes without saying that you cannot always be there as your child gets older, to evaluate risks for him. By the time your child hits the teenage years you need him to be highly skilled at judging risk for himself. At this age, he is likely to have a sudden increase in independence as he will recently have started secondary school. You will have less influence over his friendship choices and day to day activities. He may catch public transport to school, and will need the skills to evaluate: “Shall I run across the road and dodge the traffic to catch the bus that has just pulled up?” He has a private life that you may know little about, and he may have to make decisions such as: “Shall I share that picture of myself on Instagram?”
Be ready for increased risk-taking starting in puberty
The prefrontal cortex begins an accelerated period of development in puberty, meaning a young person starts to be able to make better decisions and manage his emotions better. Yet, we see a well-documented increase in risk-taking behaviour in teenagers – particularly boys. Why should this be? It’s because another part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, has an even faster rate of development at this time.
The nucleus accumbens is the reward-seeking centre of the brain. It drives us to seek “buzzes”. This might include drug-taking, driving too fast, or sexual experimentation. Until the prefrontal cortex “catches up”, the drive for a “buzz” tends to be stronger than the brain’s ability to successfully weight up the pros and cons of an action. The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until at least the age of 25, so young people often show risky behaviour well into their twenties.
Encourage clear values and an independent mind
It’s not much use being able to weigh up the pros and cons of taking a risk if you are prepared to do anything to impress your friends. Be alert for signs of behaviour like this. This may suggest that a young person does not have a sound sense of self, and might need some support to identify her values and what’s important to her. Take a look at the section on self-esteem and my post about values. It is always worth talking it through if risky behaviour happens.
Talking it through helps you “label” important emotions, thoughts and values. This helps your child clarify what is important to her and consider if she should make a different decision in future situations. For example: “Okay, you were caught on the roof of the school bike shed with your friends. I know it felt like fun at that time, but there was a risk of injury, and there is a risk that this will go on your school records and affect your employment or university chances. For me, it doesn’t seem worth it. What do you think?”
Foster a problem-solving approach
When your child is considering a risk, talk through the pros, cons and risks. If the action does seem too risky, is there a way it could be adapted so that it is a little less risky? For example, let’s imagine your child wants to try a backflip.
The pros are:
- It will be really fun and rewarding.
- I will be able to show off to my friends.
- If I get it I might get into the school gymnastics squad.
The cons/risks are:
- I could seriously hurt myself
- If I hurt myself it might take my confidence backwards rather than forwards
- Get someone to “spot” me (hold my back and catch me if I fall).
- Drag a mattress out into the garden to create a soft landing.
- Wait until I can go to a parkour or gymnastics class and use the equipment there.
Talk regularly and calmly about decisions in the future and past.
Teach your child about the importance of calculated risk. Any time you hear about someone engaging in risky behaviour, you can use it as a learning opportunity. What did the person gain from doing it? Were the risks worth it? You can also talk through your child’s past decisions and future ones, in a calm and open way. Making decisions for them will not work, because as soon as they have to be independent, they will struggle with the skill. So talking through as many examples as possible bits of help get them ready for adult life and the multiple risks and challenges they will face.
What if my child is against taking risks?
Some children are naturally very cautious or anxious. Whilst this has benefits, it can hamper them from having fun and developing new skills.
Encourage your child to move outside his “comfort zone”, but not too far out. Ask your child to draw their own “comfort zone” as an island. On the island are all the things the child is very comfortable doing (eg going to cubs, playing with friends, going to school). Just offshore are things that are outside his comfort zone, such as trying a new football club, and going to the school disco. Miles away and out of reach are things that are well outside his comfort zone but things he might like to do one day, like standing for a class representative on the school council. He should aim to try the activity that is closest to his island first. Once he has tried it a few times, he will grow in confidence and his island will also grow so that it reaches the new activity. He can then move on to the next “risk”.
Rewards are really important here. I child can learn to reap all the benefits of taking calculated risks, for a small reward. For example: “If you try the new football club, we will go to the shop afterwards and buy your favourite comic, to celebrate your bravery”.
Protective vs overprotective
As with so many things, ultimately it comes down to balance. This is the biggest challenge in learning how not to be overprotective parents. Sometimes you need to increase your level of protectiveness (for example, if your child is being bullied), and at other times you should step back a bit. Responsive parenting is about figuring out which one to do, when! Aim for “good enough”, not perfect, and you will be doing a great job.