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Many children and teens today are depressed, worried and anxious and those mental health issues appear to be rising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes the percentage of children 6-17 diagnosed with either anxiety or depression climbed from 5.4 percent in 2003 to 8.4 percent in 2011-2012.
Experts don't know and don’t agree about why today’s children are feeling more stress and anxiety, but some believe that at least part of the answer is that parents are often overly protective of their children. By definition, today’s helicopter parents are “overcontrolling, overprotecting, and overperfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting,” explains psychologist Ann Dunnewold, in an article for Parents.com.
Now a new international study suggests children of parents who encourage their children to take risks exhibit fewer anxiety symptoms. The researchers identified parents who employed challenging behavioral parenting methods and found a direct correlation to lowered anxiety levels in their children.
The types of risk-taking behavior included “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,” the study noted.
Fortunately for parents in Utah, this state offers a plethora of activities and opportunities to enable children to develop confidence and skills that can help them conquer fears and anxieties. Here are some risk-taking behaviors Utah parents should encourage.
From tubing down the Provo River in summer to riding a zip line, to indoor and outdoor rock climbing or rappelling, Utah offers a range of adventures that can help children and parents push their comfort boundaries. You don’t need to have equipment or experience. Many area businesses specialize in helping beginners participate in activities that safely provides an adrenaline rush.
These don’t have to be big family expeditions. Go on a day hike, go skiing or go swimming in one of Utah’s beautiful lakes.
Let children explore on their own
“Children are driven by nature to seek challenges; it is how they learn. If there are no challenges, children will create their own acts of daring or experimentation that can result in harm,” explains the Bright Horizons group.
Children learn and grow from age-appropriate activities they do on their own. Let them walk to a nearby park or store on their own or with a friend. Let them hike or bike some of the urban or nearby canyon trails along the Wasatch Front. Let them fish in one of the community fishing waters across the state, many of which are located in or near urban neighborhoods.
Play a sport
Competitive sports expose children to a variety of risks. In addition to the chance for physical injury, participants sometimes face criticism, confrontation and the potential for failure. At the same time, sports, dance and other physical activities provide powerful ways of helping children build self-esteem and learn about themselves, explains Richard Bailey, Ph.D., in an article for Psychology Today.
A Swiss study found that adolescents who participated in sports clubs had greater well-being, were being better socially adjusted, experienced less anxiety and were generally happier about their lives. The study also found children who were actively involved in a club sport were less likely to experiment with tobacco, alcohol and drugs.
Build a fire
We’re not talking about spraying charcoal briquettes with lighter fluid and tossing on a match or buying a bundle of wood from a convenience store. Let them build fires by making tinder bundles with natural materials they find using a simple magnesium fire starter.
Firemaking is an essential skill that can save someone’s life in Utah’s backcountry. It’s also relatively easy to learn, even for children and most of them love doing it. After showing them how it’s done, let them do it themselves including gathering their own materials. Let them practice often. If you’re not sure how to do it, there are plenty of YouTube videos on the subject.
It’s okay if they aren’t always successful. Eventually, they’ll become proficient even with unfavorable snowy or damp conditions and their ability will help them feel confident and secure.
Let them use tools
Many tools commonly used around a home involve risk. From vegetable peelers, to hammers, to power drills and more, there is a potential for pain and damage, but the benefits outweigh the risks.
“Giving children the opportunity to use real tools alongside you gives them confidence, tunes fine motor skills and makes important life connections,” explains an article for steadymom.com. “Having the confidence to use simple tools is a gift that carries them through life. Working alongside your children and creating joyful experiences can have the added benefit of attaching joy to everyday household tasks.”
As children grow and demonstrate maturity and proficiency, let them advance to lawnmowers and other power tools. Let them build things and participate in household repairs and maintenance.
Let them fail
Judith Locke, a clinical psychologist and parenting researcher, cites examples of parents who write their children’s papers or email teachers after hours about their homework assignments. She explains that parents who are overprotective hinder development of their children and can lead to feelings of incompetence.
“When parents assume responsibility for making their child always happy and successful, they discourage their child from developing age-appropriate autonomy and encourage the child to expect other adults to protect them from facing any challenge,” Locke writes.
Locke says research shows overprotective parental actions can be linked to increased anxiety, higher rates of depression and reduced life satisfaction in their children.
Learning from risk
Of course, allowing children to participate in activities and behaviors with inherent risk is not the same as intentionally putting them at risk. Parents have a responsibility to keep their children safe. But they also need to allow them enough freedom so they can function independently.
“We deprive children of free, risky play, ostensibly to protect them from danger, but in the process we set them up for mental breakdowns,” writes Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor at Boston College and author of “Free to Learn.”
“Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways. In the long run, we endanger them far more by preventing such play than by allowing it. And, we deprive them of fun.”
By allowing children to participate in Utah’s many available opportunities, parents can help prepare their children to learn essential skills and to build confidence.