Parenting is… hard. As the father of three, I get it. Issues with parenting can occur anytime and anywhere – morning, evening, middle of the night, at home, while driving, in your local mall. Parental anxiety and the conflicts which emerge from it can pose real problems for parents and children.
In addition, our role as parents has many challenges, and they change from what they are when your child is newborn to what they are as a parent of a teen or adult. Over the long run, these challenges are greatly outweighed by the happiness and love that children bring to a family.
It still stands, though, that the challenges are the things that parents seem least prepared for. After all, there is no college degree in parenting. There is no elusive instruction manual for babies and tweens and adolescents and young adults and married adults.
Probably one thing we can all agree on as parents is that we want the absolute BEST for our children. I mean, THE. BEST. Whatever that specifically means for you, one generalization we can most likely make is that it, in the least, we want things to be better. Again, this can mean different things to different people with different experiences.
The Parent Shield
Wanting the best for our children can be stressful for parents if they aren’t clear on what “the best” means for them. This can often lead to disagreements between parents.
Does it mean they…
- Get straight A’s in school?
- Don’t cry, don’t get angry, aren’t sad or unhappy? Ever.
- Have full freedom of choice? Full, no matter what.
- Get into what you think is the best college?
- Embark on the career you think they should?
- Have their own car as soon as they have their permit to drive?
- Make the sports team you believe they have the right to be on?
- Have mind-expanding, culturally balanced extracurricular activities that will look phenomenal to college recruiters?
One observation I’ve made in my years as a therapist is that in the quest to “make things better,” parents can go a bit too far in that direction sometimes. Our mission to eradicate all negativity from our children’s experiences actually hinders them in the long run.
To paraphrase an old saying: the demand to provide them with a “perfect life” can become the enemy of a really good life. This can only produce unwanted and unnecessary anxiety for our children, and ourselves. Let’s look at how this happens.
Setting the Stage for Anxiety
Some parents become what is known as “helicopter parents.” They manage their child’s life so closely from infant and toddler playdates, to sports, to school, to friends and so on, that it ends up backfiring in the end. Being overly involved and hovering around a child is a sign that the parent themselves is very anxious.
A child picks up on their parent’s anxiety and then becomes anxious themselves. She learns that she can only function with the help of a parent. Your daughter also needs to find a way to adapt to her parent’s anxiety. She might withdraw and become sad and isolated, and/or she may learn to rebel against what she experiences as being over-controlled.
Either way, this leads to an unhappy child who can become an anxious and unhappy adult. We see clear evidence of this, not only when a child is still living with parents, but after they leave home as well. The effects can linger for years and impact their ability to function. Here’s an example of some research on the subject.
Anxiety among young college students has grown significantly in recent years. A study of nearly 100,000 college students in 2013 found in the previous 12 months that more than 50% had felt overwhelming anxiety. That is a significant number! They also found that 57% felt loneliness, 61% felt sadness and 84% felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.
As a child is being raised, he or she is also learning how to respond to the world – whether you are outwardly teaching them that or not. They are learning what to do in certain situations. But if children aren’t even presented with common, everyday situations that adults must manage, then how can they have a reference point of how to respond when faced with those same situations themselves when older.
There is still hope! You can change your helicopter parenting ways and ready your child for the world before them – and all the laundry that entails!
Here are four ways recovering helicopter parents can raise confident kids
Empower Decision Making
I get it. We love our kids so much, it hurts our heart to see them get a bad grade in school because they are not putting forth the effort we think they should (despite our, ahem, strong suggestions). But if they are of a reasonable age where they understand the consequences to their actions, and they are choosing (or rebelling) to not do their homework, then you will have to lose that battle. And, they will have to get the poor grade and whatever else comes with that.
Decisions have consequences – positive and negative.
Teach Conflict Management
It stirs our inner mama or papa bear to hear about other kids picking on our child or saying things that are hurtful. The danger here is that our own parental anxiety often leads to being overprotective, and this can negatively impact our judgment. And so, our anxiety-filled gut might tell us that we need to call those parents and we need to call the school, email the teacher! “We can’t stand for this, it’s not right! This needs to be handled immediately!”
And although given the circumstances, this may totally be warranted, we also have an opportunity to ask questions, explore the situation, and guide our children on how to respond in the cases before we take those steps. Before we escalate things, we simply need to STOP and take a few breaths.
Why? Because first, the situation isn’t always as your sweet angel makes it out to be. A dinner table story about how Roxy called your daughter “mean” in class today might be due to something that originated with your daughter, and the name calling was a response to that. Does that make it ok? No, of course not. However, your child understanding that there are two people involved with every situation is invaluable. Roxy was wrong for name calling, but your daughter may have erred too. And it’s OK to point that out.
Allow Them to Engage in Activities THEY Like (not what you think they should like)
It’s easy when kids are young to just put them into activities. Naturally, you lean towards the things you did when you were a kid; play soccer, play basketball, football, piano lessons, violin lessons. But as our children grow, they develop more of a sense of self and they might resist those activities. Maybe they’d prefer art or drama. Or they’d like voice lessons instead of private soccer coaching. “But they’re so good at that! How can I let them just quit?” There is a difference between quitting and changing focus.
When kids are pressed into activities they don’t like, they become unhappy, even depressed. Anxiety and burnout can set in and you’ve created the perfect picture of angst in a teenager. It’s healthy to let them pursue activities THEY like, even if it’s not what you think they should be doing with their time. Having this freedom to choose under (somewhat) controlled circumstances will help them to discern what will make them happy later in life.
Build Their Confidence
Building the confidence of someone goes beyond saying, “You’re really smart” or “You can do it.” Confidence is defined as the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something. In other words, I believe I can rely on my ability to do X – do the dishes, wash my clothes, study for this exam, brush my teeth, read this book. Whatever skill your child needs to do, they need to rely on the belief they can do it. Actual accomplishments help them build their confidence. The earlier we help empower them, the less anxiety we feel and the more confident they become!
The belief someone can accomplish something or complete a task is called self-efficacy. So, first I have to believe I can do something, then I have to rely on that belief to do the task over and over consistently or as needed to care for myself.
There are four main ways as parents that we can affect our children’s confidence, the belief that we can do something.
Experience – if you try something and are successful, your self-efficacy (belief) is raised. If not so successful, it may lower it around that task. This need not be permanent! Try again! Help your child understand that they have not failed if something doesn’t work out. Instead, help them to understand that life is simply a series of experiments in which it is as valuable to find out what doesn’t work, as well as what does work.
Here’s a good point to remember from a quote that I recently saw: “No child learning how to stand, ever fell down 50 times, and permanently decided said that they were going to give up!”
Modeling – “If they can do it, then I can do it.” What we are seeing others do, we believe will happen for us. Therefore, if we are around those who are successful at something, we believe we will be, too. Our self-efficacy goes up, our confidence builds. If we are around those we see failing, our self-efficacy can lower. It DOES matter who you hang around!
Social Persuasion – Basically, people encouraging you. Of course, the other side of this is people discouraging you. “You can’t do that.” “You’re no good.” “You’re not smart enough to do that.” These things can lower a child’s self-efficacy and their belief that they can accomplish a task. This can also damage greatly their self-esteem as well as. Much better to stay: “You’ve got this!” or “I know you can do this!”
Physiological Factors – The outward signs of stress like shaking hands, sweating, shaking voice, increased heart rate. These things cue our mind to think things like, “Oh man, I’m so nervous. I’m gonna blow this!” The fact that they are experiencing these things does not mean they can’t complete the task. It’s the BELIEF in what the signs mean that’s the issue.
By keeping these things in mind with your child and combine these factors in practice, you can help your children build the self-efficacy and confidence to have an independent and happy life!
If you feel you struggle with letting your children spread their wings and step out on their own, please reach out. I’m more than happy to have a quick 15-minute phone call with you (free of charge) to see if I can share some strategies to make that aspect of parenting a little less stressful for you.