How to keep anxiety away from your child

Thursday, November 24, 2022
Paul Bogacs
About the Author

Paul Bogacs

Paul Bogacs is a lecturer and counselling strand convenor in the School of Arts and Business at Avondale University.

Top tips for balanced parenting

I was only young, perhaps 13 years. Hardly an age to be independent and totally responsible. But this didn’t prevent my parents from giving me permission to ride a pushbike—bought for $9 from the postal service—together with all manner of other traffic down the hill on the Bruce Highway from the outskirts of Nambour through to the high school. And, if you were about to ask, no, I didn’t wear a helmet. Nobody did. This was the day when children played cricket in the street until it was dark or explored the nearby bush, building cubby houses and creating adventures. Nobody carried a phone in their pocket.

Contrast this with my experience of speaking to parents at a primary school a few years ago. I suggested it would be good for their children to climb trees (which teaches you so much about life). After the talk, a teacher told me I’d been brave because climbing trees wasn’t something parents at the school would ever allow their children to do.

It seems we have lurched from one extreme to the other, from underestimating risk (I still ride a bike but never without a helmet) to overprotective parenting that fails to build resilience, problem-solving skills and the ability to manage risk. But why does it matter?

Research tells us overprotective parenting can lead to higher anxiety in children. And it appears anxiety in children and adolescents is increasing. It makes sense that if our children don’t develop the internal resources to deal with the challenges of life, they’ll be more anxious about how to cope. They’ll get scared.

What else can produce fear in our children and stop them from becoming resilient adults?

  • Modelling to our children that we have to keep everybody happy. Not only is this unhealthy, because it puts us under so much pressure, but it’s also not possible.
  • Our baggage—traumatic events in our lives that make us less available. Kids need a strong, reliable, secure attachment figure. There’s good evidence to suggest our attachment as infants to our primary caregiver influences our emotional wellbeing and our ability to create healthy adult attachments.
  • Rescuing our children from the natural consequences of their actions. Supporting our children doesn’t equate with always defending them. Consequences teach us valuable life lessons. Every teacher can tell you stories of parents who cannot and will not accept that their child could possibly have done anything wrong. (I’m married to a teacher, so I hear the stories!)
  • Indulgent parenting. I’m convinced from my years as a school counsellor that some parents will try to compensate for their lack of availability by making sure their child has the latest iPhone or some other gadget. Children don’t need more things, they need attachment.

Australian psychologist and author Steve Biddulph suggests two types of love: softlove and firmlove. Softlove is characterised by an ability to enjoy the moment with your child, to not let the clock that dictates our adult lives determine our availability for our child, to not get caught up and stuck in the past or the future and to communicate warmth and acceptance. Firmlove, on the other hand, is firm without blaming, hitting or harming, acts early (before you loose control), doesn’t take things personally and finds ways to discipline rather than to punish.

Biddulph also contrasts firm parents with mush parents. Mush parents need to keep their child happy, always put themselves last and do anything to keep the peace. He suggests it’s far healthier for children to learn: they’re important but so are other members of the family; frustration is part of life, and; life is challenging but fun.

What we’re talking about is how to raise emotionally healthy children. The keys? Slow down. Make time with your children non-negotiable. Don’t be afraid to back off a little so they have the space to develop resilience. Never do anything to scare them or make them fear you. Be consistent. Practice softlove and firmlove. Don’t abdicate being a parent for the sake of avoiding conflict. And tell them you’re proud of them.

Not an easy job is parenting, but you already know this.