We all want the best for them – hearing our kids cry or seeing a bruised knee make our stomach clench. So keeping them safe and cosy, reminding them of all the dangers they need to avoid is a sensible way to ensure their physical health. The only problem is that this approach, taken to the extreme, can have serious negative impacts on their mental health.
Kids need to engage in many different types of play in order to develop optimally. Most parents encourage role play (as it makes them grow socially), physical play (to become more coordinated) or intellectual play (for developing thinking skills). Yet a lot of well-meaning parents overlook the importance of risky play, which is absolutely necessary for emotional development.
Risky play can take many forms; climbing a tree, playing with fire, jumping down stairs or befriending creepy-crawlies. These activities have one thing in common: there is a certain level of danger involved. When children encounter danger, their stress level rises, experiencing all the physical and cognitive signs that go with it (increased heart rate, stomach in knots, alertness, etc.). These are the same sensations they will experience later in life when giving an exam, asking someone out on a date or going on a job interview. If they are allowed to engage in risky play, they will learn to work through these feelings, act in the face of them and become more confident and resilient as a result.
If we prevent them from dosing themselves of this healthy level of fear through risky play, they can easily learn that any sign of stress they detect signals a horrible danger that must be avoided. My patients suffering from anxiety disorders, where everyday occurrences like leaving the house, talking on the phone or crossing the road become unsurmountable challenges, often report that they were overprotected as children and not allowed to take any risks.
It can be especially difficult for parents who have anxiety issues themselves to see their kids in danger and do nothing about it. Of course, we need to set age appropriate boundaries; but next time you see your little one doing something slightly risky, pause and ask yourself: ‘Is it worth to get rid of my own stress now if the price is that my kid will be worse at dealing with the same emotions later on?’ You may well find that with practice this becomes increasingly easier to do and as a bonus, your anxiety might be more manageable in other areas of life as well.