This week’s question came from a parent who is trying to figure out how to support their anxious child and reached out to me with a more complex and personal version of the question, “am I being protective or over protective when I try to support my anxious child.”
Here’s the thing, one family’s protective is another family’s over protective because we can’t take a particular behavior out of the context of a particular family and say, “That is always right” or “that is always wrong.”
Anxious children come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and developmental needs. Families, too, have different expectations and values. In one family, choosing to homeschool due to a child’s anxiety is overprotection and in another family it’s a great idea. So how do we know the difference for ourselves? Or at least how can we start figuring it out?
Ok first we have to back up and remember what this whole parenting gig is all about and that’s raising humans to grow up and live their own best lives, right? That’s parenting in a nutshell. And we know, from just looking around us, that there are a whole lot of versions of best lives out there. So part of this parenting and growing up is figuring that out — what version? What are our children’s strengths that we can play to? What are their challenges that we can help them confront and overcome or learn to work with them?
As they grow, we continuously reassess. Our children change, our values as a family sometimes change, and certainly circumstances can change. Any of that means we go back to the drawing board and say, “Is this still working? Are we still moving forward? Is my child still making progress however that’s meant to look?”
Back to protections, protect should protect; not limit. Overprotections limit. Overprotections keep kids stagnant and stuck whileProtections keep them safe and encourage growth.
A general example would be making your typically developing preschooler hold your hand when you cross the street is protection. Making your typically developing 12-year old hold your hand when you cross the street is overprotection. That’s easy, right? That’s very clear. We know what to expect from preschoolers and we know what to expect from 12-year olds and we understand the mechanics of crossing the street.
Things get trickier when we’re talking about expectations that are more complicated or nuanced such as managing social media, or navigating romantic relationships, or figuring out how to deal with anxiety.
In cases like that, where it feels more complicated, I encourage you to step back and ask yourself these questions:
- What are my goals for my child around this topic?
- What skills around this topic will they need when they’re adults?
- How can I help them to begin to build those skills now in ways that are developmentally appropriate?
If what we’re doing is not building those the skills that we know they need, then it might be overprotection. Remember, protections protect but leave room for skill building and over protection limits, it doesn’t find ways to give kids the opportunity to learn the skills they will need as adults.
This is so hard when we’ve got anxious kids who don’t want to learn those skills. Who are perfectly happy with you managing things for them. Again, step back and think about your child as an adult. Think about what they need now to get them there, to adulthood with the skills that they need whether they like it or not.
This doesn’t mean that you let an 8-year old fend for themselves when they’re scared anymore then you’d let a preschooler cross a busy street without teaching them how traffic works. But it does mean that at a certain point you’re going to ask them to do the things they need to do, knowing that you’ve given them the support and information that will allow them to do it.
For example, if you’ve got a 12 year old who reasonably knows how to cross the street but doesn’t want to, then you might insist. You might say something like, “I don’t have time to walk you to the ice cream shop to get you that milkshake so if you want to get a milkshake you’ll need to get there on your own.” And we’d say that with the full confidence that we’ve given them the knowledge and skills to accomplish that safely.
They might be scared. They might insist they don’t know how to do it. But a milkshake might be just the incentive they need to find out they can.
When it comes to anxiety, we might need help drilling down to the small steps and small skills they need. We might need help understanding what’s protective and what’s over protective because some anxious kids are pretty dramatic. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way at all. I mean that their fight, flight or freeze is so big or so consuming that it’s hard for us to get perspective and know whether or not what we’re asking of them is reasonable. That’s all part of the planning and work of supporting and raising anxious kids.
If you are feeling stuck or your child is feeling stuck, know that this is part of the anxiety process. Feeling stuck just comes with the territory and usually means we need to stop and reassess what we’re doing and whether or not we’re off track in helping our child acquire those skills they’re going to need. If you need help with that. Let me know.