This perspective brought to us by psychologist Sarah Heavin in Tacoma, WA.
Better Safe Than Sorry? Not if you care about fostering healthy child development, by Sarah Heavin
As a forensic child psychologist, I am often hired to evaluate a child for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after an injury. Think: Car accidents, plane crashes, dog bites, ceilings caving in, and medical malpractice.
I’m the mom of two young children, so these injuries haunt me. See that elevator? It could crash. That hillside could collapse. Open bodies of water? Don’t get me started. But despite this, my kids are encouraged to take risks. Why?
Because kids need to take risks to learn to how be safe. A “Better safe than sorry” mentality doesn’t promote child development, and hovering might not even keep your kids safe anyway. (As I’ve seen!) The goods news is that even kids who face trauma are often happy and healthy, despite it all.
So, why should you let your children explore, take risks, and practice independence?
1. It’s good for attachment. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, described attachment as the process of maintaining an emotional bond with parents and caregivers. A healthy parent-child relationship is measured by a child’s ability to explore and trust that the world around them is a good place. Encouraging exploration demonstrates that you believe your relationship is an adequate foundation for your child to navigate the world.
2. It’s part of forming a healthy identity. Psychologist Erik Erikson is the father of “identity formation.” He explained that children should develop just enough shame to allow themselves to be guided by others, but enough autonomy to keep from relying on others for protection. A toddler should learn to act with confidence. Erikson likely would have seen “helicopter parents” as fostering doubt and reliance, which hurts identity.
3. Kids can handle it. One UK study examined the lifetime prevalence of PTSD by looking at more than 6,000 people. While 36% had experienced a trauma, only 2% developed PTSD. That means most people who have had a bad thing happen to them are okay. We are resilient. Research also shows that healthy attachment and secure identity promotes resilience after trauma.
4. The search for safety is illusory. The road to safety doesn’t always make you safer. Research shows that safety upgrades on playgrounds aren’t necessarily productive, because kids learn that others will keep them safe, rather than learning to take charge of their own safety.
In one of my earliest cases as a child psychologist, I interviewed the children of a mother who had died tragically. I expected these children to be broken. They weren’t. They were happy. Their mom had created kids who were securely attached. Who could cope with her absence. Who could withstand trauma. What an amazing gift.
Saying “Better safe than sorry” suggests there are two choices: total safety or perilous disaster. But the cut is never that clean. Good parents let their kids explore, knowing that if something goes wrong, their kids will be resilient. So even though I see that hillside falling down in my mind’s eye, my kid gets to climb.