For parents with children who are easily nervous or scared, becoming protective is often a natural response. But how much good can parental protectiveness do for an anxious child? New research conducted by Arizona State University attempts to answer this question, shedding light on the adverse consequences of parents falling into the "protection trap." The study, published in journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development, suggests that overprotective parents can actually reinforce anxiety in their children.
Uncovering the Protection Trap
When dealing with a child who suffers from anxiety, parents can easily fall into the "protection trap," a parent's reaction to a child's sensitivity, in which they become overprotective of a child's experiences and feelings. The study observed this phenomenon, recruiting 70 children with the ages of 6-16 from a university-based program that treats childhood anxiety. Researchers administered self-report questionnaires and clinical interviews, examining behaviors that stimulate and enable anxiety through modeling, punishment, and reinforcement. They found that children with parents who displayed more protective tendencies were more likely to suffer more from anxiety.
"The protection trap can be confusing for parents to understand," says Lindsay Holly, researcher and ASU graduate student. She notes that children with anxiety typically demand more reassurance than their peers. Reassurance provided by adults, however, can give off the idea that their fears are validated, reinforcing their anxious feelings in the long-term.
How to Deal with Your Child's Anxiety
The study found that allowing children to avoid situations that make them fearful or uncomfortable is another harmful behavior enlisted by overprotective parents. This is usually coupled with doing the stress-inducing action for them or telling them exactly how they should respond. “[Parents] do the scary thing for them. The children don't overcome the situation and they keep feeling anxious," adds Holly.
Researchers urge parents to monitor their own reactions to their children's anxiety. Instead of smothering them with comforting reassurance or allowing them to sit back while you overcome their fear for them, reward them when they step up to the plate and conquer their anxieties. “Attention is often the most powerful type of reward so doing easy things like giving a high five, a smile, or a simple 'I like how you faced your fears!' can go a long way," Holly said.
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Lindsay E. Holly. Armando A. Pina. Variations in the Influence of Parental Socialization of Anxiety among Clinic Referred Children. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 27 August 2014. DOI: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10578-014-0487-x
Date of original publication: August 26, 2014
Updated: November 10, 2015