Knox and Wahroonga Prep Psychologist Dr Rebecca Lazarus has completed a PhD with Macquarie University to research how encouraging children to take ‘safe risks’ can reduce anxiety.
Encouraging your kids to climb higher or run faster, challenging them to a running race, or letting them lose a game are all characteristic of a style of parenting that could reduce the risk of childhood anxiety.
Can you describe your research project briefly?
I looked at the relationship between a newly defined parenting construct “challenging parenting behaviour” and childhood anxiety disorders. It’s an awkward term due to the translation from Dutch, however it describes parenting that models confidence to the child, encourages bravery, promotes taking “safe risks”, and exposes the child to novel and/or feared situations.
What made you pick this topic?
An enormous amount of research to date has focussed on the relationship between parenting and childhood anxiety disorders, with a particular focus on the how certain parenting behaviours are associated with increased risk for childhood anxiety disorders.
One of the limitations of this literature is an extensive focus on the role of mothers, almost ignoring the role of fathers’ parenting. I chose this topic because challenging parenting behaviour was suggested to be a type of parenting that fathers may be particularly inclined to utilise, and I was interested in knowing more about the father’s role. I also chose this topic, because I was interested in looking further into parenting behaviours that may be protective against the development of childhood anxiety disorders.
Is there evidence that anxiety is on the increase for young people?
Whilst we don’t yet have evidence in Australia that anxiety at the disorder level is on the rise, we have evidence that there is an increase in anxiety symptoms being reported.
How should parents be encouraging risk taking?
Prior to telling parents what they “should” do, we need to be able to look at the impacts of this parenting behaviour longitudinally. However, what this research is promoting is trying to support parents in being less overprotective (sometimes referred to as “helicopter parenting”), which may sometimes mean that the parent needs to put their own fear or nerves aside, to encourage their child to climb that little bit higher on the play equipment, or to approach something they find scary, or even to try new things.
Do we know why the risk taking reduces anxiety?
When a child is able to face safe risks on their own, it teaches them self-confidence and independence (“I can do this without mum/dad’s help”). When parents step in too early, or does things for the child that the child is actually capable of doing themselves, it teaches the child that they can’t do this, or that the world is unsafe and their parents need to always be there to protect them from this.
Is there a difference in the results between mothers and fathers, and boys and girls?
We only examined preschool aged children in this particular study, however we found no difference in the results of parents of boys compared to parents of girls.
Australian mothers had slightly lower levels of challenging parenting behaviour than Australian fathers and Dutch mothers and fathers, however these results need to be replicated. What is important to note is that both mothers and fathers engage in challenging parenting behaviour, and that, regardless of parent gender, challenging parenting behaviour was found to have a negative relationship towards childhood anxiety disorders (i.e. that greater challenging parenting behaviour was associated with fewer anxiety symptoms, and less likelihood of an anxiety diagnosis in the children examined).
>> Read more on the Macquarie University website