Parenting in a Scary World: Raising Resilient Kids

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“The world has become such a scary place,” a nervous mom told me not too long ago. “It’s so much harder to be a parent today than it used to be.” I think many of us would be inclined to agree with her. Nowadays, it's hard parenting in a scary world. That's why it's important to raise resilient kids!

“The world has become such a scary place,” a nervous mom told me not too long ago, her face tight with anxiety. “It’s so much harder to be a parent today than it used to be.”

I think many of us would be inclined to agree with her. It sure seems like the world has gotten scarier, doesn’t it? And it seems like this has made parenting much more challenging than in the past. But let’s look at this assumption and see if it holds up, while we also consider what we can do to raise more resilient kids.

This article is the first of a six-part series on how parents can raise resilient kids. When we say resiliency, we mean a person’s ability to bounce back when he is knocked down, to persevere during hard times, and become stronger in the face of adversity. Some people are more resilient because of their temperament, but for most of us, it is something that can be developed and strengthened with intentional effort.

There is no simple formula for building resilience, but the research has found several qualities—mindsets, behavioral patterns, skills—that can be developed over time and tend to make for more resilient individuals.

Before we get to those qualities, though, we should start with how to think about raising our kids in a world that seem so out-of-control.

The World’s a Dangerous Place, Right?

It’s a scary world out there! Isis. Bombings at concerts. Shootings in restaurants. Child predators. North Korean missiles. Flesh-eating bacteria. Hackers. It’s crazy! It’s enough to make you want to lock your kids inside and never go out. It certainly seems like the world is getting more dangerous.

“We look at the news and social media feeds and we become convinced the world has become a much worse, much more dangerous place—and it’s not even true.”

With reports of school shootings and gang activity, there sure seems to be more violence in schools. Clearly, there is more terrorism around the world. We have more weird diseases and lots more unstable countries. There are more senseless acts of violence.

Right?

Here’s the first problem: It’s not true. If we are guided by facts, then we know violent crime is at its lowest level in over 50 years. Youth violence is way down for at least the past fifteen years, if not longer. According to the Journal of the American Medical Society, bullying is one-third of what it was twenty years ago. And despite some upticks in a few big cities like Baltimore and Chicago, the murder rate is about half of what it was two decades ago.

And how about this: In the U.S., you are currently about 271 times more likely to die in a workplace accident than by an act of terrorism. Here’s the research.

But thanks to social media and websites and cable news, we are left with the impression that the world is getting much worse and much more violent. As a result, it’s made us much more anxious as parents. According to a Reason-Rupe poll, nearly two-thirds of parents erroneously believe their children face more threats to their safety than they did in the past.

A Short Danger Quiz

So before we go any further, let’s take this little four-item quiz. It’s called “What’s more likely to kill you?”

Ready?

What’s more likely to kill you?
A) A terrorist attack
B) Being crushed by furniture in your home

What’s more likely to kill you?
A) A shark attack
B) A cow attack

What’s more likely to kill you?
A) A house fire
B) A mosquito bite

What’s more likely to kill you?
A) A tornado
B) A hot dog

If you answered “B” to all of these, you’d be correct. The point is that we are often afraid of the wrong things. We are much more worried about the unlikely, improbable, and rare threats like terrorists and child predators and sharks than we are about the more mundane threats like car accidents and premature birth and household accidents.

We are much more likely to let our kids play football or not wear sunscreen or ride in a car with a teen driver, all of which have a much more higher chance of causing them harm than a terrorist attack. These things, though, seem less of a threat because they are familiar and commonplace.

Check Your Fear

We look at the news or scroll through our social media feeds and we become convinced the world has become a much worse, much more dangerous place—and it’s not even true. But here’s my other, perhaps even more controversial, point: Even if it were true, we should not parent in fear. Fear breeds fear and the result is children who are afraid of the world, prone to disengagement, and woefully unprepared for the challenges of life.

“When you are fearful, you communicate fearfulness to your child, which increases the chances of him/her being more likely to struggle…”

If you want to raise resilient kids, your first step is to check your own fear at the door. Perhaps you are a fearful person by nature. Maybe you have just become convinced the world is incredibly dangerous. Or it’s possible you’ve experienced some traumatic event in your personal or family life that you don’t want to risk again. Whatever the reason, you would be wise to make sure you are not guided by fear in your parenting.

I cannot promise you if you don’t parent in fear that you nothing bad will ever happen to your kids. We live in a world where bad things happen. Children get cancer and other diseases. Families are in car accidents. People are the victims of violent crimes. Accidents happen. All of that is true, but it is unlikely that your attempts to shelter your kids from danger will protect them.

Obviously, there are common sense issues (e.g., you don’t let your kids spend the night with unfamiliar people, you don’t let your teen ride home with peers you suspect like to party, you don’t allow your kids to go to the beach during a thunderstorm, and so on), but when you are governed by fear, you do two things that keep your child from being resilient.

The Problem with Fearful Parenting

First, when you are fearful, you communicate fearfulness to your child, which increases the chances of her being more likely to struggle with anxiety herself and see the world as a threatening place. Second, you may hold him back from many life experiences that could keep him from facing some challenges and developing a greater sense of resilience.

In a recent study, most Americans believed a child should not be able to play unsupervised in their front yard unsupervised or wait in a car for five minutes on a cool day while their parents run into the grocery store until they are at least 11-years-old. They also said that a child should be at least 13 before he can be left at home alone for any period of time.

“Fear breeds fear and the result is children who are afraid of the world, prone to disengagement, and woefully unprepared for the challenges of life.”

This is a subtle, but fairly radical, departure from past generations who let their kids ride their bikes to the park and go trick-or-treating and a bunch of other things without supervision at much earlier ages.

This perception that now the world is much more dangerous than in the past and that children require the near-constant supervision of adults at almost all times drives our tendency toward overprotection. The result is we risk raising children who are ill-prepared to face the challenges of the world.

Obviously, this isn’t a call to throw out common sense or to be unwise. Rather, it is an appeal to keep your fear in check and let your child have normal life experiences—and develop a capacity for resilience along the way.

Click here for more content by Dr. Dave Verhaagen!

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Dr. Dave Verhaagen
Dave Verhaagen is the author or co-author of eight books, including Therapy with Young Men and Parenting the Millennial Generation. As a licensed psychologist who earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he has served as clinical director for three mental health agencies and is the founder and former CEO of Southeast Psych, a large psychology practice in Charlotte, NC. He is one of fewer than 5% of psychologists in the U.S. to be certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) and he is a Fellow of both The American Board of Clinical Psychology and The American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. His work has been featured several times in USA Today, Newsweek, and dozens of newspapers around the country. He works almost exclusively with young adults (16-29 year olds) in his clinical practice. Dave is a popular speaker at local, state, and national conferences. He has been married to Ellen for 26 years and they have four young adult children: Daniel, Christy, Maddie, and Abbey.Fun facts: He once broke a finger tucking in his shirt and broke another finger making his bed. He worked in radio for seven years on-air. He is a bad magician. He still dresses up each year for Halloween. Do with this information what you will.

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