Encouraging Kids To Take Risks Can Lower Their Chances Of Having Anxiety

by Meredith Bland
Originally Published: 
Image via Helena Wahlman/Getty Images

Challenging your kids could protect them from anxiety

Have you ever looked at your four-year-old as they zoom around the playground, almost tripping over this ledge, almost running headfirst into that kid, or getting ready to scale the tallest ladder and thought, Please, can we not go to the ER today? Well, a new study says that encouraging your kids to take chances could help lower their risk of developing childhood anxiety.

Researchers from Australia, the Netherlands, and England studied 312 preschool-aged children from Amsterdam and Australia to see what effect challenging parental behavior (what they refer to as CPB) had on the children’s anxiety levels. They found that parents who encouraged “safe risk-taking” had children who were less likely to show symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

Many of us probably feel that our preschoolers have no problems challenging themselves, and worry that if we were to encourage them to do more of it we would end up in the ER on a weekly basis. But the study makes clear that it isn’t referring to life-threatening risks, but “safe risk-taking…such as giving them a fright, engaging in rough-and-tumble play or letting them lose a game, as well as encouraging them to practice social assertion and confidently enter into unfamiliar situations.”

I do have two petty objections, here. First, I don’t understand “giving them a fright” as a parenting technique. I once had to escort my kids out of a showing of Rio because they couldn’t handle the emotional tension between a pair of cartoon macaws. That kind of risk-taking was never going to happen in my house. And second, since when did letting your kids lose a game become an example of risk-taking? I don’t mean to be “that guy,” but come on, now. Letting your preschooler lose games should only be a risk if you’re playing with Tony, the spirit that possesses little Danny’s thumb in The Shining. (Yes, that thumb is my go-to reference for small, scary things.)

But on a serious note, this study makes a powerful point: if we encourage our kids to take safe risks and show them that they will not only survive them but will be perfectly okay and even grow from them, they will have fewer reasons to have anxiety about the world. If we tell our preschoolers to go ahead and climb to the top of the jungle gym, we’re allowing them the thrill of taking a chance and discovering that they’re capable of more than they thought they were. If we let them roughhouse with their siblings, they’re learning that sometimes, life is going to pin you to the ground, give you a wet willie, and kick you in the face. And though none of that is pleasant, it’s also not the end of the world.

When our babies become preschoolers, it’s hard to see them take chances that could result in disappointment, and it’s hard to watch them engage in a physical activity that will almost surely end with them in tears. But what they get from those experiences is more than just a lesson in how the world works, they can also gain a sense of confidence and self-reliance that they may not have had before. Trying something new and succeeding is an enormous boost for little kids. They need that. But while there’s a lot to be gained from taking a risk and succeeding, there’s just as much to be gained from failing.

So stand back, moms and dads, and give your little ones the space to take those chances. (But don’t let them lick that lollipop. That’s just gross.)

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