Fear of failure—this is the root of all anxiety for both parents and children. It’s not that we deny the inevjitability of failure, or its merits. It’s the fear that our precious ones may get hurt in the process. And like any loving and sensible parent, we do what we can to prevent or at least lessen the pain. If we can spare them, why not?
But preventing our kids from exploring and experimenting—picking their battles for them because we want and can—is counterproductive, according to experts. By shielding our children from failure, we are actually setting them up to be less motivated, less confident, and overall, more anxious.
A sense of control
The antidote to stress isn’t safety, but a sense of control.
College test coach Ned Johnson and neuropsychologist William Stixrud, authors of The Self-Driven Child: the Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over their Lives, say that the lack of sense of control is a major driver of child anxiety and depression. They said that when parents (or even over-structured schools) micromanage everything from homework to friendships, children become less motivated and less confident because they have little say in their own lives. They feel more fatigued… and more powerless.
On the other hand, a healthy sense of control results in better physical health, less risk for drug abuse, positive emotional well-being, improved academic performance, greater internal motivation, and enhanced career success.
We should give our kids a strong “sense of control” (or what experts call “perceived control”) starting at a very young age. Allow them to experiment and explore -- within safe and age-appropriate limits, of course!
I know the less I interfere with my toddler, the less meltdowns occur. Sure, I end up with a very dirty dining area whenever he prefers to feed himself, and his tinkering turns his room into a complete mess, but he’s less fussy in general.
Be your child’s consultant
“Authoritative not authoritarian, reliable but not interfering”—this is the recommended stance to take. According to the self-determination theory, humans have three basic needs: a sense of autonomy, competence, and a sense of relatedness. Children need a strong sense of autonomy to sharpen their problem-solving skills, or else fear of failure will lead them to be distressed and demotivated.
So we give our children a road map—but we let them steer and drive. The most important factor in providing perceived control is to let them decide between two acceptable choices (ex: “Do you want to read or paint?”), or assist instead of rushing in and doing everything for them.
This actually helps wire our children’s brains to handle stress better. The amygdala is the brain’s threat detection system. When kids are given choices, the prefrontal cortex (which is in charge of logical planning and thinking) takes over, and the amygdala becomes less sensitive to stress.
However, we don’t need to be neurologists to see why it’s important to teach children stress management skills. Sheltered children won’t be able to keep up in school or at work. It’s better to steer them in situations with “tolerable and positive stress”, where they can learn to take risks, and grow more confident and resilient. By failing and succeeding on their own, they develop coping skills they will need for the real world.
The role of parents is to give choices, set limits, or negotiate. Psychologist Dr. Peggy Drexler says, “That doesn’t mean shielding them from defeat. It means letting them fail safely.” It’s okay to let kids fail under our guidance. What’s not okay? Preventing your child from doing something to save yourself from your own worry.
Explorations and errors
Children learn from (first-hand) experience, and it is through exploring that they learn to tackle things with creativity and imagination. They craft strategies, persevere, and push themselves out of their comfort zones.
As early as infancy, studies have discovered that even babies are particular with what they wish to explore. As parents, we can enhance and support their drive to learn. Sometimes, the best tactic is for us to let them be. Give them more downtime -- not just lots of sleep and rest, but an open schedule with opportunities for free play. Let them get bored! Allowing them to sit with their thoughts leads to self-discovery.
Letting go helps both you and your child
Lastly, micromanaging doesn’t do anyone good, including you. The best thing to relieve anxiety in our children is to focus on lowering ours. They can feel our stress, and like a contagious emotional virus, they will become stressed out themselves.
So relax, parents! Allowing children to explore, take risks, and make mistakes leads to happier, more confident kids.
About The Writer
Former magazine editor-turned-freelance-writer/columnist/stylist, Kim’s work revolves around creative pursuits. For 14 years, this mum of two boys has been delving into beauty and wellness, fashion, travel. She finds equal joy in styling shoots as much as styling her kids, and their DIY parties. As a work-at-home mum, she strives to be a mindful mother through Pilates and meditation. Her me-time consists of coffee breaks, binging on documentaries (and desserts), and obsessing about the details of whatever project is at hand.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are his/her own, and does not state or reflect those of Wyeth Nutrition and its principals.