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|Too Much of a Good Thing? - Page 2|
Safe but Sorry
What I'm finding through my clinical work and research is that families that bubble-wrap their children may prevent their healthy maturation. The Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote about "zones of proximal development"—the edge between what a person can do and can potentially do with proper supervision. These zones are where experiences occur that provide manageable amounts of challenge. When parents forbid tree climbing, discourage a teenager from working outside the home or using public transit, and impose excessively restrictive curfews, the results are well-resourced children who suffer the disadvantage of excessive preoccupation with their own well-being. If these kids give in and accept the world as a dangerous place, they're more likely to become sedentary and obese. If they become rebellious, they wind up throwing themselves into dangerous, delinquent, deviant, or disordered behaviors without the helpful guidance of the parent to keep them safe. After all, by that point in their development, these young people assume their parents are unreliable when it comes to assessing risk. Good kids from good homes actually may play at being bad to find enough risk and learn enough responsibility to meet their developmental needs.
When I work with overprotective parents, I invite them to remember what risks and responsibilities they had when they were the same age as the child who's the focus of the intervention. Then I ask: "What did you learn from taking those risks and having those responsibilities?"
Many parents will shudder and argue, "But I put myself in real danger!" I explain I'm not advocating putting their child in danger, but I am asking the parents to remember how those experiences shaped their lives later. For example, to the parent who never lets his child ride a bicycle on a busy street or otherwise infantalizes his teenager, I'll ask, "What experiences does your child need now to be ready to drive a car on those same roads when she's 16?"
Next I invite parents to think about their children's reckless and endangering behaviors from the point of view of the child. What's the child trying to achieve through these behaviors? For parents who complain their child is terribly withdrawn and isolated, another consequence of overprotective parenting, I invite them to consider what the child fears—what the child's perception of the risks beyond his front door is—and the source of those fears. For a child who is acting out in potentially dangerous ways, I explore with parents how the "problem" behavior may actually be a "solution" in the child's mind—a way to experience risk and responsibility and the feelings of competence and status that accompany them.