Opinion: increased monitoring, protection and supervision of children means they are not developing the coping skills or resilience they need to cope in their everyday lives.

There is a growing concern that our attempts to protect children is resulting in a "cotton wool" generation. Increased monitoring and supervision of play, anticipating risks and doing everything we can to protect them means children don’t develop the coping skills or resilience they need to cope in their everyday lives. A few key messages from research in the fields of psychology and developmental science help us better understand how children develop resilience.

Children learn to feel good about themselves by being kept safe and supported while at the same time being presented with challenges that are not too much. Good enough parenting is where children are protected from harm, but encouraged to take risks appropriate to their age and their capabilities. Children need to be nurtured and supported and, at the same time, challenged. This enhances their sense of security in themselves and the world, while also developing their coping skills.

Children who do well in the face of adversity are children who are able to reach out for help

An important skill that promotes resilience in human beings is the ability to problem solve. We need to generate different solutions to a problem, weigh up the pros and cons of each alternative and make an informed decision as to how to resolve the problem.

How do we learn to solve problems? By having lots and lots of opportunities. If children are not presented with such opportunities, this impedes their development. Parents can unwittingly prevent their children from developing these thinking skills through "thinking for them" and anticipating the difficulties that may arise and "solving" them. Parents need to gradually pull back as their child gets older and encourage their child to think for him or herself, to figure out their own path through their daily struggles, and still be there to gently support their efforts and make sure they don’t get overwhelmed.

We are so much more exposed now to information about the bad things that can happen to children. Advances in technology and communication mean that present day parents are more aware of the dangers and risks that are out there. Some can manage this fine, while others are overwhelmed by it.

If we can use this information to make good decisions about anticipating where dangers lie for our children, we will be better able to protect our children. If we are overwhelmed and undermined in our confidence to protect our children, it will result in us keeping our children close to us. This may prevent them from exploring their world in a way that promotes their autonomy and independence – and their problem solving skills.

If we want our children to develop as healthy balanced individuals, we need to help them develop the skills they need to deal with adversity

Parents who may at the best of times struggle with anxiety (it is the most common mental health difficulty in the world) can develop specific anxieties about their children’s safety and welfare when exposed to this information. They may feel that their only option is to keep their children close and that this will minimize the likelihood that they will get hurt. This may be their way of coping with their own anxiety.

But children need to spread their wings, explore their environment and develop their friendships away from the gaze of their parents or carers. If parents cannot manage their own anxiety about the risks that children may face every day, this anxiety will be communicated to their children, and children will then feel anxious, less confident, and less competent to face life. A useful resource for parents who suffer from anxiety is Claire Hayes’ Finding Hope in the Age of Anxiety (Gill Books, 2017).

A final message is that children who do well in the face of adversity are children who are able to reach out for help. They are able to recognise "I I need help here, this is more than I can cope with on my own" and they have access to someone who can support them.

One of the coping skills that parents need to teach their children is how to ask for help when they need it. Of course, there is no better way to teach children than to show by example. Parents who seek support when they are struggling, whether that be from a partner, a friend, or from a professional, are demonstrating to their child that it’s okay not be to able to cope with everything all the time; that it’s good to ask for help; and that, with support, they will be able to manage.

If children are not presented with opportunities to learn how to problem solve, this impedes their development

The problem is not that we are trying too hard to keep children safe. We can never try too hard because we can never ensure that all children are kept safe. Our children will experience adversity because it is part of the human condition. Much as we would like them to be spared heartache and pain, we have to accept that this is part of life.

If we want our children to develop as healthy balanced individuals, we need to help them develop the skills they need to deal with adversity. The balance that we need to strive for is to protect our children from harm, but not hold them back from normal exploration that is healthy, that will expand their horizons and their problem solving skills and show them that it’s okay to look for help when it all feels too much.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ