Courage, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. Anxiety, on the other hand, is the antithesis of courage. It is synonymous with fear, worry, apprehension, and angst, and its prevalence in our youth can now be described as an epidemic. Anxiety disorders have become the most common psychiatric disorders diagnosed in childhood and adolescence, and are the number one reason college students seek counseling.
Why is this happening?
Several recent studies are pointing to what is referred to as “helicopter parenting”, an overprotective, over-involved style of parenting that, while well-intentioned, is undermining the very magic of childhood. If children are not allowed to take risks and explore the boundaries of danger and uncertainty, they may very well be robbed of the self-confidence, creativity, and courage that were once a normal part of growing up.
“The strongest predictor of anxiety at age nine was the child’s anxiety levels at age four,” states Professor Jennifer Hudson of Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health. “Our study found that children who show signs of anxiety and who are inhibited (such as being unwilling to talk or reluctant to explore new situations) as preschoolers are more likely to have mothers who help too much.”
Try to remember a moment in your own childhood when you took a risk: reached for a branch that you might not have been able to grab, walked to a friend’s house just beyond your usual geographic comfort zone or finally mustered up the courage to tackle the rope swing from the tippy top. Those are the kind of moments that shape consciousness and resilience.
If you found yourself nodding at the above description there is a good chance that you grew up in the 70’s or earlier. A time before a playground injury transformed our definition of a “safe playground” and before the devastating abduction of Etan Patz, both of which dramatically shifted the conscience of parenthood. As it turns out, playgrounds are not any safer than they were in 1971, and abduction is still virtually nonexistent, regardless of what the milk cartons told us back then. The truth is that life is risky business, and we can either embrace it, or be afraid. And what we teach and model for our children influences their perception in far more subtle ways than we imagine.
Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, began observing and interviewing children on playgrounds in Norway. In 2011, she published her results in a paper called “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences.” Children, she concluded, have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear.
“When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it’s a thrilling experience,” states Sandseter.
The evidence is clear. Children are spending less time outdoors playing and they are suffering because of it. The resulting decrease in their physical activity, social skills, risk management skills, resilience and self-confidence makes them vulnerable to anxiety disorders.
Today’s children face incalculable challenges and their anxiety can stem from multiple sources. Decades of antibiotic overuse have compromised their bodies’ ability to balance their neurotransmitters, the feel good chemicals that balance our emotions. Social media has given birth to emotions like “FOMO”, the fear of missing out. Screens in every room offer a dopamine fix that is becoming an addiction and rapidly dissolving the communities, particularly on the family level, that have always provided our deepest nourishment. Every aspect of a child’s interaction with their environment be it microbial or social, must be considered in order to raise happy, healthy children.
By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear. So, let your kids find their way. Let them unplug. Let them fall and get back up. Let them take a chance every once in a while, get hurt even, as those experiences will build character and decrease their chance of developing anxiety.
Dr. Jason Frigerio, N.D., L.Ac., is a naturopathic doctor and certified acupuncturist in the state of New Jersey. Additionally, he is a practitioner and instructor of Qi Gong and meditation. His practice, New Jersey Natural Medicine, is located at 4 Village Road in New Vernon. For information, call 973-267-2650 or visit NJNaturalMedicine.com.
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