Youth Services Law

Mental Health Problems in Overly-Protected Kids

Bubble-wrapped childI just ran across an excerpt from a new book, “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” that I hope gets wide circulation. The author, Julie Lythcott-Haims, served as Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford, and believes that helicopter parenting harms children. The part that caught my eye was an outline of recent mental health research suggesting that overly-protective parenting causes significant mental health problems:

•  A 2013 survey by the American College Health Association of almost 100,000 college students found more than half to be suffering from anxiety and depression symptoms, while eight percent had seriously contemplated suicide.

•  A 2010 study of 300 college freshmen found that students with helicopter parents were less open to new ideas and more anxious than students given more responsibility and less supervision.

•  A 2011 study found that students of helicopter parents were more likely to receive medication for anxiety or depression.

•  A 2014 study found that the more time that young children spent in unstructured activities, the better able they were to set goals independently and decide for themselves how to meet the goals.

As Ms. Lythcott-Haims summarizes her view,

As parents, our intentions are sound—more than sound: We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them. Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is “best” for our kids is completely out of whack. We don’t want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we’re willing to take real chances with their mental health?

All of this advice to parents is excellent, but it poses a dilemma for youth organizations. How can we follow any of the principles when doing so increases our risk of parent complaints, lawsuits, or bureaucratic penalties? For example, one group of expert proclaims the virtues of letting children have unsupervised time, but another group of experts says that unsupervised children is simply child abuse waiting to happen.

I don't see a simple answer to this dilemma, but I do believe strongly in several principles:

•  Changing the existing conventional wisdom is going to take time. We spent several decades getting into this bubble-wrapped mentality, and it is going to take more than a few years to get out.

•  We cannot ignore the safety standards in the field, whether they are statutes, regulations, or the prevailing standard of care. We should work to change them when they are too strict, but we have to incorporate them into our protocols.

•  Where we have discretion in designing activities, we must educate parents. Until they understand that taking age-appropriate risks actually benefits their children, they will always choose what appears to be the safest option.

•  Finally, lawyers defending safety lawsuits must find a way to broaden the conversation. As long as the only question is whether a given practice increases the risk of physical injury, we will lose the argument. We must broaden the issues to include the mental health benefits from slightly-increased risks and the mental health harms from too much physical safety.

It will not be easy to reverse the trend of overly-protecting our children, but both the anecdotal evidence and mental health research are showing that we need to try, and to start as soon as possible.

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