Crime rates began to come down in the 1990s, but fear among parents remained. This is where the problem of being over cautious begins. The concept of safety started to extend beyond children’s physical safety to emotional and psychological comfort. This denied children experiences they needed to learn and grow.
Parental overprotection has been shown to foster unhealthy coping mechanisms in children. Overprotected children are more likely to both internalize problems (as in anxiety and depression) and externalize them (as in delinquency, defiance or substance abuse).
Some psychologists propose that overprotection can morph into what they call “safetyism,” which teaches kids negative thought patterns similar to those experienced by the anxious and depressed. Safetyism can over-prioritize a young person’s safety to the exclusion of other practical and moral concerns.
Here are three unhealthy thought patterns to monitor in yourself and your children:
Identify negative filtering. Do not underestimate the positives of experiences like unsupervised play (joy, independence, problem-solving, risk-assessment, resilience) when considering the potential negative consequences.
Be aware of dichotomous thinking. Do not fall into the good or bad trap. There’s a world of possibility between one or the other. Considering people, ideas, places or situations as either good or evil (but never both or somewhere in between) fosters a polarizing “us vs. them” attitude and eliminates nuance.
Recognize emotional reasoning. Feeling “unsafe” (uncomfortable or anxious), does not mean you are actually physically unsafe. If you avoid all stress, you will never learn to overcome stressors or understand your full potential. Avoiding hurdles can make us think we are more weak or fragile than we are.
While some of these are rational consequences to avoid, they shouldn’t feel so overwhelming as to keep youths from transitioning into adulthood. Broken hearts teach you about what you want in a romantic partner, young people can be taught about safe sex, alcohol can be drunk in moderate amounts and mistakes are healthy, human and normal. Teens shouldn’t be so afraid of life that they no longer feel excited to live it.
Without opportunities to explore and learn their limits, youths risk internalizing a false sense of helplessness and becoming depressed and anxious.
Helpful thought patterns
Positive thought patterns must be developed within ourselves. That means giving ourselves, our teens and our children the opportunities needed to become independent, resilient and autonomous. And that means embracing negative experiences like frustration, conflict and boredom.
Here are some words of advice:
Mind your mind. Your thoughts are powerful. They dictate how you see the world, others and yourself, so foster positive, rational thought patterns.
Raise your voice. Encourage curiosity and productive disagreement. We will never learn to be open-minded or become well-rounded people if we do not challenge our own beliefs, listen to others’ perspectives and recognize our potential to be wrong. Every aspect of our lives, including our relationships and jobs, depends on our ability to argue in an effective, respectful and productive way without becoming overemotional.
Open your heart. Try to give others the benefit of the doubt because most people do not intend to do harm. Do not let fear dictate your thoughts and actions.
Trust yourself. Life will always throw curve balls and there will not always be an authority to defer to. Life is not safe or risk-free. The best protection is the knowledge that you can handle life’s challenges.