The Anxiety/Autonomy Connection

Deep down, I think many kids are looking for something more meaningful and challenging than what they are experiencing. I think they are looking for a real sense of competence and ownership over their own lives. But they are growing up controlled, overprotected, and anxious because of it.

I know adults can relate. How do you feel when you have choice, when you feel in control, and part of a supportive team? It feels great! Compare this to working for a micromanager, who is constantly correcting you, blaming you, and not giving you choice or responsibility.  Ugh!

It’s no different for children.

Let’s get something straight though, the Number 1 most important thing that children need is to feel loved and accepted. This is not spoiling the child. It actually leads to more confidence, competence and willingness to take risks. Conditional love and blaming for mistakes is what leads to children lacking courage and resilience. Afraid to make mistakes, the anxious child will recoil…afraid that love will be taken away again.

Feeling out of control, incapable and not secure is at the root of many of our problems. I’m not alone in thinking this.

A recent study found that Youth with higher levels of anxiety tend to report being granted less autonomy by their mothers.

So, although guiding our kids seems natural, helping them make their own choices and build their own skills to help themselves is ultimately what they are craving and is how we need to help them. If you really want to help, this is how.

We must help our kids by stepping back when the time is right and by facilitating their independence. Independence is healthy. It contributes to the development of self-esteem, identity and wellbeing. When we do something for ourselves we get rewarded with a powerful sense of achievement. When children (and adults) have opportunities to make choices, to do tasks themselves, and to take on increasing responsibilities, self esteem grows.

However when kids have not been given control, they might not be used to it. Their first attempts might result in hesitation and failure. This is okay. I know this is hard. Seeing your child struggle is hard. We want to protect. But challenge is a good thing. Trust me. It means they are learning and growing. We want our kids to grow. To know that you can fail, and in the end, be okay and accepted, is a huge life lesson in resilience.

Too often, adults do things for children because it’s easier that way, safer, quicker, and less of a struggle. But the message we inadvertently send is that you are incapable of making decisions or doing a task…or that the world is not a safe place. This can be a serious blow to self esteem and feelings of security. Kids pick up on parent’s energy. They can sense when the parent doesn’t believe in them.

It might seem counterintuitive, but do your children a favour… believe in them, then let them struggle. Love them through it with phrases like these:

“I believe in you” “You tried really hard” “You did it”

If you want to help, then comfort them when they fail, then help them reflect on lessons learned and help them make their own decisions and game plans for the future (not yours). Practicing this skill is the only way they’re going to become good at it.

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