Are you a parent who worries about your child’s safety and well-being? Do you try to shield them from any physical or emotional discomfort? Do you think that by doing so, you are helping them grow up happy and healthy?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may want to reconsider your parenting style. According to some psychologists, the recent cultural emphasis on safety has contributed to the rise of poor mental health among youth. They argue that parental overprotection denies children the experiences they need to learn and grow, and fosters unhealthy coping mechanisms such as anxiety and depression.
We are facing a mental health crisis. Teenagers and young adults are more depressed, suicidal, anxious and lonely than ever before. Depression rates among teens have been increasing since the early 2000s. A 2018 national survey found that 13.3 per cent of U.S. adolescents experienced a major depressive episode in the last year. But it’s not just teens — young adults are suffering too. A 2016 international survey of university counselling centres revealed 50 per cent of university students sought help for feelings of anxiety and 41 per cent for depression.
Suicide rates are also increasing. The number of teenage girls in the U.S. who died by suicide nearly doubled between 2000 and 2015. The mental health statistics for Canadian youth are similarly grim. In 2003, 24 per cent of Canadians aged 15-30 self-reported that their mental health was either fair or poor (compared to very good or excellent). By 2019, that number had risen to 40 per cent.
What has changed in the last decade to explain this rise in poor mental health among youth? Some psychologists point to the recent cultural emphasis on safety as a contributor. In previous decades, American and Canadian children enjoyed more freedom, even though there were rising crime rates. The crime wave in Canada rose steeply from the 60s through the 80s until it peaked in the early 1990s. Cable TV became widespread during the same period, meaning that news of crimes spread farther and quicker than ever before.
This surge spurred safety initiatives like sharing pictures of missing children on milk cartons and crime shows like America’s Most Wanted. It’s no wonder parents became increasingly fearful and protective. Crime rates began to come down in the 1990s, but fear among parents remained.
This is where the problem of being over cautious begins. The concept of safety started to extend beyond children’s physical safety to emotional and psychological comfort. This denied children experiences they needed to learn and grow.
Parental overprotection has been shown to foster unhealthy coping mechanisms in children. Overprotected children are more likely to both internalize problems (as in anxiety and depression) and externalize them (as in delinquency, defiance or substance abuse).
A study of suicide attempts among American Indian and Alaska Native youth found that increasing protective factors was more effective at reducing the probability of a suicide attempt than was decreasing risk factors. Protective factors are positive influences that help people cope with stress and adversity. They include personal wellness, positive self-image, self-efficacy, familial and non-familial connectedness, positive opportunities, positive social norms, and cultural connectedness.
These factors can help youth develop resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from challenges and overcome difficulties. Resilience is not something that people are born with or without; it is something that can be learned and nurtured through supportive relationships and environments.
As parents, we want our children to be safe and happy. But we also want them to be strong and capable. We can help them achieve both by giving them appropriate levels of freedom and responsibility, by encouraging them to explore their interests and passions, by supporting them when they face challenges or failures, by modeling healthy coping skills and behaviors, by celebrating their achievements and strengths, by respecting their individuality and autonomy, by exposing them to diverse cultures and perspectives, by fostering a sense of belonging and purpose.
By doing so, we can help our children develop into confident, competent, compassionate adults who can thrive in an uncertain world.