Study: Overprotective Parenting May Worsen Kids’ Anxiety

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Think you’re doing your anxious child a favor by coddling him? Think again.

In a new study published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development, researchers found that certain coddling behaviors toward anxious children may actually increase their anxiety level, although the study does not definitively prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Researchers call this overprotective parental behavior the “protection trap” — reassuring kids by lavishing them with excessive attention and making the threat go away.

To conduct the study, researchers looked at results of a survey of 70 children ages 6 to 16 being treated for anxiety and/or depression at a clinic. The kids were equally divided among boys and girls and among whites and Hispanics/Latinos. Among the two ethnic groups, the Latino parents seemed to attend more frequently and vigorously to their children’s anxiety. Clinical psychologist David Coe, MD, of Miami Children’s Hospital in Miami, Florida, speculates that this could be because of cultural differences, or the product of language interpretation challenges. Dr. Coe adds that the best way to treat anxiety is to expose people to their anxiety-inducing situations in a “controlled, supportive way.”

Armando Pina, co-author of the study and an associate professor of child development psychology at Arizona State University. Pina, adds that the parents of anxiety-ridden children can help their child by promoting courage with warmth and kindness. But other tactics, such as “promoting avoidance by overprotecting, which can often lead to more anxiety,” are less helpful, he adds.

Lindsay Holly, the study’s lead author, says she agrees that when children are distressed they need parental comfort and reassurance. Sometimes, however, the parents provide excessive reassurance or make excuses for the child. Holly suggests they instead encourage the child to do brave things that are “small and manageable.”

Parents should not blame themselves if they have an anxious child. But they should be aware that there are therapy options that can help kids be more resilient and teach them the importance of facing their fears. One goal of this type of therapy is to educate parents on how to promote courage in their kids. Small victories can be the building blocks that help anxious children learn to face and to overcome their fears.