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Don't Worry

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Don't Worry

By guarding children from every conceivable risk, parents are also eliminating opportunities for adventure and responsibility.

By guarding children from every conceivable risk, parents are also eliminating opportunities for adventure and responsibility.

It began when you gave permission for her to go to an overnight party at a friend’s. Next you said okay when she asked to wear makeup to school. You hoped an extended curfew would keep her happy. But your daughter is never satisfied.

She found a part-time job. She’s saving money for a car but spending some of it on alcohol. She is only sixteen. You wish she was still six. You long to swaddle her in a blanket of bubble wrap and hold her safe in your arms.

That’s right, bubble wrap. What better to shield your child from the dreadful reality of growing up?

Dr. Michael Ungar, family therapist and professor in the School of Social Work at Dal­housie Univ­ersity, believes we are rearing a generation of “bubble-wrapped kids,” tots and teens who are cloistered from danger until they have become Too Safe for Their Own Good(McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2007).

This is the title of Dr. Ungar’s latest book, which describes the harmful consequences of overprotective parenting. By guarding children from every conceivable risk, parents are also eliminating opportunities for adventure and responsibility. These experiences are important for learning risk management and for gaining a sense of purpose.

Four Key Messages

Kids aren’t just looking for trouble. By taking risks they are often seeking affirmation from parents, friends, and mentors that they belong, and are trustworthy, responsible, and capable. When kids are withheld from everyday opportunities to demonstrate their competence, they may rely on more reckless activities for a satisfying buzz. Exploring drugs and sexuality, for instance, can be a normal part of growing up. But without alternative outlets these behaviours may become a dangerous source of assertion or identity.

The four key messages listed above can be sought in various ways, both sensible and deviant. A young child may simply want to roam a little further on his bike, walk to school alone, or test his acrobatic skills on the playground monkey bars. It sounds reasonable. But what if he gets lost or takes a tumble?

Lay Down the Law

The possibility of harm is inevitable. Keeping this in mind, parents must determine but sometimes flex the boundaries for their child. It’s best to start early. Gradual exposure to risks and responsibilities will provide a foundation for managing challenges down the road. As boys and girls continue to mature, their demands grow and parents must be prepared to negotiate boundaries with an insistent adolescent.

“When children are pushing the limits, our response shouldn’t be to give in to every request,” advises Dr. Ungar. “The onus is on us to offer a substitute that is not as dangerous as what the child is asking for.”

Perhaps your teenager wants to go to a party where you know there will be alcohol. Instead of keeping her at home, you could give permission with the condition that you pick her up at a designated time. If your son wants to take a road trip with his friends over the weekend, let him go ahead if he agrees to telephone each day.

Look Inward for Answers

In some cases negotiable boundaries aren’t clear-cut, and it may seem your child wants to take on more than he or she can handle. There is no formula for determining what is sensible and what is unsafe. If you are struggling to make the best decision, take some time to think about the following three questions:

  • What am I really worried about?
  • What am I doing to help my child mature into adulthood?
  • What alternatives can I offer in place of dangerous behaviours?

Consider these questions and then invite your son or daughter into an open discussion about their needs and your concerns. Do you feel like the last person on earth your kid wants to have a heart to heart with? What may surprise many parents is that kids are seeking their advice. According to Dr. Ungar, “It is our job as parents to provide boundaries around our kids. They want boundaries around them. They feel secured and loved when those are there.”

Secured and loved can easily turn to confined and smothered. To avoid this, handle your child with care, but save the bubble wrap for the breakables. Raising kids is one case when you’re not always better off safe than sorry.

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