Overprotecting Your Anxious Child Backfires — Try These 5 Tips Instead
Parents want to protect their kids. This is natural, healthy and adaptive. As psychologist Elizabeth Penela, Ph.D, noted, “In many ways, parents are physiologically wired to protect their children from harm.”
You also likely want to prevent your child from getting upset or stressed. And if your child is already upset and stressed, you want to make it better. This is especially true if your child is struggling with anxiety; if their anxiety, worries and fears — about everything from an upcoming test to an upcoming birthday party — are so intense that they interfere with their everyday life.
Overprotecting your child, however, backfires. It amplifies your child’s anxiety and makes them even more scared and dependent. According to Penela, “overprotective parenting is when parents try to shield children from any situation in which distress might be experienced, even when it does not represent true danger.”
Below, she shared five valuable suggestions for stopping overprotective parenting and what to do instead.
Avoid reassuring your kids.
“Providing reassurance to an anxious child is always done with the best intentions; parents want their children to feel better,” said Penela, who specializes in treating anxiety in kids at Pediatric Psychology Associates in Coral Springs and at their new location in Weston, Fla.
For instance, if your child is worried about being sick, you quickly tell them: “Look, you don’t have a fever. That means you’re not sick!” If your child is worried about an upcoming test, you say: “You’ve always gotten A’s and B’s on tests, so of course you’re going to do well on this next test!”
For kids with clinical anxiety, reassurance only helps in the short term (if at all). Because what kids really learn is that to cope with their anxiety, they need to avoid it. And they avoid it by relying on and seeking reassurance from their parents, she said.
“In other words, overprotective parenting implicitly teaches children [that] you cannot handle this situation; mom or dad must help you with it or it won’t turn out well.”
Avoid helping too much.
What is too much help? To know that, Penela said, you need to know the stage your child is in. For instance, your child is just learning to tie his or her shoes. Too much help is tying the shoes for them so they don’t get frustrated. “A more appropriate response would be to allow the child to try on his or her own.”
In general, Penela suggested taking a “wait and see approach” with your child. That is, wait to see how much your child can do on his or her own. Then when they’re stuck, provide guidance verbally, and gradually increase your help as needed, she said. Don’t do the task for them.
“In other words, provide just enough help so that the child is accomplishing on their own as much as they possibly can.”
Let your child make mistakes.
Learning from mistakes is vital to children’s social, cognitive and motor development. So it’s important to let them slip up, giving them an opportunity to learn.
Penela shared this example: Your child arrives at a party and realizes that they made the mistake of wearing an inappropriate outfit, which really upsets them. Instead of driving them home to change or packing backup outfits, you validate their feelings. Then together you explore what happened. “Was there a detail about attire in the invitation that we missed? Maybe there is simply a lot of variety in what is being worn, and there’s not necessarily a “right’ thing to wear.”
Encourage helpful thinking instead of worst-case scenarios.
Do you envision worst-case scenarios when it comes to your child? Do you see a swing and think your child will plummet to the earth if they hop on? Do you think your child will be humiliated and devastated at the mean kid’s birthday party?
If you’re prone to anxiety yourself, you’ll often imagine fear in many situations, like the above examples, according to Penela. And discouraging or stopping your child from participating in these situations encourages them to imagine fear, too.
As it is, anxious kids already create all kinds of worst-case scenarios: “If I go to this birthday party, I’ll probably be bored because none of the other kids will talk to me. There will be mostly kids from another class there. What are the other kids going to be wearing? I bet I’m going to wear the wrong thing and look silly.”
Penela suggested helping your child explore the pros and cons of a situation. Again, instead of reassuring your kids that everything will be fine and great, reflect back your child’s questions in a “warm, curious and empathic way”: “Hmmm, I’m not sure if the kids at this party would be mostly from another class. Even if they were, I wonder what you could do. When we’re at the park and you don’t know anyone there, how do you usually end up talking to those kids?”
This encourages your child to engage in realistic and independent thinking, she said. And it encourages them to evaluate anxiety-provoking situations objectively, she said.
Reframe your role as a parent.
“Rather than viewing your role as a parent to prevent your child from experiencing any harm or distress, try to reframe your role as helping your child learn how to discern what situations are dangerous versus just feel dangerous,” Penela said. Think of your role as teaching your child how to approach challenging situations, she said.
When you notice that you’re trying to prevent your child’s distress, ask yourself: “What can my child learn from this situation? Is this a prime opportunity to teach problem solving about a challenging social situation? Or perhaps an opportunity for him or her to further master a particular motor skill?”
It’s also helpful to imagine your child is older and think about the skills they’ll need to navigate different situations, Penela said. These skills might include assertiveness, decisiveness and self-confidence, she said.
“Children don’t develop these skills overnight, and it is up to parents to take advantage of different situations that can become opportunities to teach these various skills.”
For instance, when your child has a disagreement with their best friend, instead of calling their parents to talk about it, help your child problem solve. According to Penela, “What went wrong? Is this a relationship [you want] to repair? What might be the best way to go about repairing it?”
In another example, when your child gets a bad grade for a test they tirelessly studied for, instead of calling their teacher, help them think about what might’ve happened. Maybe they focused on the wrong material or felt off that day, Penela said. Maybe your child did everything correctly, and they’d like to talk to the teacher. Talk to them about the questions they can ask, and brainstorm together. You might even “do a quick role-play where you pretend to be the teacher.”
Wanting to protect your child is a natural instinct. But overprotecting them can actually be detrimental. If you or your child needs extra support, consider therapy. “A psychologist will be able to conduct a thorough assessment and most importantly, help in developing a treatment plan,” Penela said.
Father and daughter photo available from Shutterstock
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Overprotecting Your Anxious Child Backfires — Try These 5 Tips Instead. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 4, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/overprotecting-your-anxious-child-backfires-try-these-5-tips-instead/