Safety Fear Being a responsible parent and an overbearing one is a fine line. Here's how to walk it. DR. SCOTT HALTZMAN
Being a parent means being concerned. Sometimes, however, it can go too far.
Why do I constantly fear for my child’s safety?
When a child is born into the world, he or she is totally defenseless; babies need to be held carefully, fed regularly and attended to all-day long. New babies need protection from germs, heat, cold and even the occasional jealous brother, sister and household pet.
As the baby grows new dangers—from jungle gym falls to internet predators—will be something every parent will think about. And, with each new step toward independence and self-actualization, the child desires to do things on his or her own; the parents’ wish to shelter the child does not disappear simply because the child doesn’t see the need for protection, thus parents want their children protected for two reasons: the well-being of children is the responsibility of the adult, and parents have dreams of who their children will become and want to assure these dreams come to fruition.
The Parent's Responsibility
Let’s talk about the responsibility conundrum. Yes, as parents, we need to secure the well being of children. But problems emerge when we try to define what’s in their best interest. There are obvious good protective measures, like seatbelts and bicycle helmets. But at what point is it okay for a child to cross the street without supervision? When can he or she try skateboarding, surfing or, alas, bungee jumping? (In my opinion, I don’t think any person at any age should bungee jump!) The reality of raising children is their "well being" includes helping them out, but at times, it also includes giving them the freedom to put themselves at risk. Children need to take chances in order to discover through experience how to master themselves and their environment. Learning how to succeed also means learning how to fall flat on their faces, and that’s the part parents have a tough time with.
That brings us to the second issue: parents have dreams for their children. When a child is born, we envision a future for our children that includes, first and foremost, happiness. Beyond that, we dream of this infant growing into an adult who is smart, successful, has opportunities to achieve much in life, while suffering no pain—after all, we presume the lack of pain is one of the defining characteristics of happiness. No parent dreams of having a child who is addicted to drugs or cigarettes (even if that parent is) or who breaks an arm on a skateboarding fall. So, to make sure that children reach their full potential, parents work overtime to protect their little ones from all bad things that might befall them.
One of the biggest challenges facing a parent is striking the balance between two extremes:
1) Being too lax in the supervision of children and setting them up to be exposed to countless negative experiences, or
2) Being too protective, thereby robbing children of the painful, but necessary consequences of making errors.
So What To Do?
If you constantly fear for you child’s safety, it could reflect your inclination to be too focused on maintaining safety, or your belief in not allowing him or her to make mistakes because it may interfere with the lone chance of your child finding happiness. Either way, you need to loosen the reigns a bit and accept that learning by experience, even negative experience, is a critical element in assuring your child’s long-term happiness and success. Your child needs to take chances, and occasionally fall flat on his or her face to reach his or her fullest potential.
There’s also a chance your worries could be based on underlying psychiatric problems of your own. Adults who have experienced abuse or neglect themselves as children often project fears onto their own progeny; this goes beyond the usual reasons for over-protection and may require the help of a mental health professional. Likewise, some individuals suffer from anxiety disorders that make it hard for them to keep perspective regarding real versus imagined fears. This disorder predisposes the sufferer to unreasonable preoccupation or worry and should be treated by a therapist or psychiatrist.
There is no right answer to the question of when to hold on and when to let go. Of course, basic care like seatbelt usage and anti-drug messages are essential. But letting your toddler step off the sidewalk alone or letting your teen get behind the wheel alone, are all part of growing up, for you and your child.
Dr. Haltzman is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University. He is also the author of "The Secrets of Happily Married Men: Eight Ways to Win Your Wife’s Heart Forever." You can find Dr. Haltzman at www.DrScott.com