Despite the best of intentions, modern parents are ushering their children by the droves into emotional mousetraps. Caught between a parent’s own desire for enmeshment and rapidly shifting societal norms, children are left ill-equipped to navigate the spectrum of their own emotions. The trends tell a story of children and adolescents, who are facing suicidal ideation and behavior; children who are medicated by the truckloads; children who are – for loss of a better word, unraveling.
Children and teens admitted to the hospital for suicidality has doubled in the last ten years. Remember every number, every stat is a child – someone’s child, who is suffering. A multitude of factors is bringing these outrageous statistics to our front door but one is frequently overlooked in mainstream media : parental rescuing behavior.
Parental rescuing behavior is the rate at which a parent intervenes to rescue a distressed child. Sounds innocent enough. Who wouldn’t want to help a child who is feeling pain or anxiety? Unfortunately, this is the exact maladaptive thought that can lead to the emotional harm of a child. In essence, a child or teen must feel distressed for periods of time in order to develop normally as an emotionally stable human. There isn’t a way around it. But modern parents are finding every avenue possible to jump this perceived roadblock. Unfortunately, we have become very uncomfortable with the idea of discomfort. Frankly, I’m not surprised. Advertising, social media, and the benign afternoon conversation with friends continually weaves a thread of illness into our daily living. We believe our children should not experience sadness, anxiety, boredom, rejection or face loss, disappointment or even discontent.
I am not suggesting we ignore our children. Quite the opposite, in fact. Responsive parenting, attachment parenting and positive parenting are the methods I put my credentials behind. Infants and toddlers are not able to work through emotions alone. They need support. They need role modeling and a caring, present and attuned parent. Children and teens need the same. However, as our children age, we have to be incredibly careful not to cross the lines into pervasive parental rescuing, which robs our children of learning and growing into emotionally whole individuals. We need our children to understand they can face and work through the ups and the downs of life.
HOW PARENTAL RESCUING BEHAVIOR HARMS:
It teaches children to be insecure. Children, who have been told their whole lives that everything they do is golden will grow up to believe everything they do is golden. Correcting a teacher who gives a “C” instead of an “A” to your child instead of correcting your child’s work sends a message that your young person is above the learning process. As they progress through life and are faced with the reality that they are, in fact, human – they will feel lied to by their own parents and insecure of their own worth.
Self-esteem is built within. It is not something we can give to our children no matter how hard we may try.
It teaches children they are untrustworthy. The best parents may inadvertently send a message to their children that their decisions cannot be trusted when they continually rescue them from difficult interactions. Mistakes are seen as failures rather than learning opportunities and children begin to question their responses. “If my parents don’t trust me then I must be untrustworthy.”
It teaches children powerlessness. We cannot remove the decision-making process away from our children’s lives, whether it be a decision to swing from the monkey bars or find a new group of friends, without it taking away a chance for our children to learn coping skills, determination, and empowerment. Powerlessness leads to helplessness and children who feel helpless are more likely to face depression, anxiety and the behaviors that many times follow – isolation, self-harm and even aggression towards others.
It teaches children emotional instability. If we repeatedly rescue our children from teachable moments, our children will feel and behave incompetently when faced with big emotions, negative emotions, or anything minutely difficult. Children cannot learn social intelligence or self-regulation without opportunity.
If we don’t give them an opportunity when they are small to face failure, disappointment or their own wrongdoing, once they are older and the stakes are higher, they are completely inept at grappling with difficult emotions, which may have a much higher cost.
Many experts believe this is one reason why we are seeing a spike in suicidal thoughts and behavior among our adolescents.
HOW TO AVOID IT:
Allow your children to make mistakes. Give your child every chance to make a mistake. Normalize mistakes. Teach them that you too make mistakes. Show them how they can learn from every misstep and become a better person for it. If they don’t fear mistakes – they won’t fear failure. And isn’t so much of life simply learning to face our fears.
Teach your child personal responsibility. Do not rescue your child from every conflict. Conflict resolution is a necessary life skill. Guess what? You have to have conflict to learn how to resolve it. Do not rescue your child from school discipline. Teach ownership. Teach sympathy. Teach empathy instead of escapism.
Give your child independence. Susan Newman, Ph.D., states, “The children of parents who support autonomy are more competent and resilient in the face of frustration, so give kids space to work through temporary setbacks.”
Seek emotional support for yourself. Many parents face their own emotional reality of anxiety and depression. There is strength in acknowledging you may have a problem and seeking a solution. Find a community of support. Do not let your own emotions project onto your child. They deserve the healthiest version of you. For more information, please visit my resources section. There is always hope.
Modern parents are giving their all but sometimes we give all of the wrong thing. Trust your child enough to allow them to handle the difficulties in life and trust yourself enough as a parent to see them through it. You do not have to rescue. You just have to be present.