Are You Teaching Your Child Healthy Coping?
Most of us enter parenthood with the idea that we are going to protect our children from the painful experiences and emotions we had growing up. No doubt, however, you have noticed that more often than not we pass down some of those same insecurities, fears and anxieties to our own children, even when we seem to be doing everything we know to prevent it.
Sometimes the habits we have developed as coping skills are so ingrained that we cannot simply shut them off when we become parents. Children can detect even small indications that their parents are struggling with emotional issues. We often try to keep our children from realizing how anxious, depressed or insecure we are, but despite our best efforts, children are extremely observant and perceptive. As a parent, you are being watched and heard all the time, especially when you don’t think you are.
When we have a tendency towards being anxious, one of the key ways we cope is to try to control the things that cause us to feel that way. Parents can even go to extreme measures in over-protecting their children against perceived threats that may be highly exaggerated. While you, as the parent, have to determine what really presents a risk for your child and what you need to teach them to protect themselves, it never hurts to ask yourself whether the threat you are trying to protect them against is really for their own safety or whether it is primarily to help you manage your anxiety. If it is the latter, you may be imposing your own anxiety onto your child.
Your child develops their expectations about the dangers of life by watching you. They also develop their coping skills the same way. If you tend to be calm, then they will learn to be calm and react to situations in a more thoughtful manner. If you tend to be nervous and excitable, then that is how they will learn to react to situations. Even when you are trying to hide nervousness, it is still evident in your body language, what you say and the way you behave.
If you truly want to prevent passing on unhealthy coping skills to you child, you must first be determined to correct those behaviors and beliefs in yourself. Your child will easily recognize any discrepancy between what you do and what you are trying to teach them. Sometimes, overcoming unhealthy emotions may mean seeking professional help to resolve some of your past experiences. Once you are able to overcome any unwarranted fears and anxious reactions, you can more objectively teach your child to manage circumstances in a healthy way.
As children age, your parenting must evolve. When children are little, they require firm directions on how they must behave, even though they may not understand why. As they age into teenagers and young adulthood, it’s important that your parenting evolve to reflect what they need, eventually giving them enough leeway to take some risks of their own and, perhaps, deal with the consequences.
As a parent, allowing your child to take certain risks is nerve-racking. Your gut reaction is to step in and stop them from making a bad decision or to rescue them from consequences. If you are an anxious parent, you will find it challenging to resist stepping in. However, these life experiences are critical to shaping them into confident adults who can think through situations based on their own experiences and make good decisions. As a teen, or even as a young adult, your role shifts from caretaker to advisor as you provide a safety net for them to take appropriate risks.
Most problems between adults and their parents stems from the parent’s desire to control or dictate the child’s choices, even into adulthood. This often comes in the form of providing assistance of some kind (e.g., money, babysitting, etc.), but with strings attached. Those strings often come in the form of either dictating behavior or the sense of entitlement to give your opinion, whether it is welcomed or not. These are all continued attempts to control your adult child’s choices as a way of managing your own emotions.
When you resolve your own issues with insecurity and anxiety, you will find that you are free to extend your child the space he or she needs to experiment, to grow and to develop the confidence to succeed in life. You will also find that you have a much better relationship with them, as well!
Larry Deavers is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Executive Director of Family Counseling Service of West Alabama.