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How to Raise Healthy Kids in a Fearful Culture

This week, I am blogging on three cultural realities and how we can help our kids from Generation Z navigate them. We’ve explored our culture of avoidance and our culture of outrage the past two days. Today, I want to talk about our culture of fear.

Because we’re raising our kids in uncertain times, adults are consumed over all that could go wrong in their lives. In fact, we’ve become downright fearful. The fear usually stems from the 24/7 news cycle, broadcasting stories of terror, school shootings, drug abuse, cyber-bullying, abductions, and human trafficking. It’s not that these stories are “fake news,” but rather, we feel like they’re happening all the time and everywhere. The fear has grown amidst three-and-a-half decades of our rising awareness of the need for child safety and protection. We began to make decisions and to lead our kids out of fear.

Clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel explains this challenge most effectively saying that today’s world offers us thousands of fears to worry about that we cannot control. So, many of us take all of those uncontrollable fears and reduce them to the one target we feel we can control, our children. In fact, it is this fear that I believe has a destructive effect on students.


What We Found Out About Our Fears                                                                   

Our organization, Growing Leaders, partnered with Harris Poll in the fall of 2018 to discover the most frequent emotions adults experience as they lead kids, including: excitement, frustration, hope, apprehension, anger, concern, optimism, and others. We wondered what kind of leadership today’s young people were receiving from their parents and teachers as they grew up. The poll was nationwide with 2,016 adults of varying ages and from a variety of locations across the U.S. participating.

What we discovered did not surprise me and, in fact, confirmed my suspicions. The top emotion that comes to Americans’ minds when thinking about the future of today’s youth is concern (46%), with older adults more likely than their younger counterparts to cite this emotion. Pause for a moment and just consider the ramifications of this reality.

Almost half of today’s kids are being raised by adults who feel concerned and even fearful over their children’s futures. Seventy-nine percent of adults agree with the following statement, “I am fearful of the future world we are leaving for today’s youth.” Nearly all Americans (98%) have at least one concern regarding today’s youth. The top concerns being:

  • Social media or smartphone addiction (69%),
  • Mental health issues (61%),
  • School shootings (57%),
  • Alcohol/drug abuse (56%).

While these are legitimate concerns, they are also having a negative (even damaging) effect on kids. When asked to select reasons why their children didn’t spend more time playing outdoors, 82% of the mothers chose safety concerns, including the fear of crime.

So, what has this done to our leadership?

“Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the bumps out of life for their children. However, parental hyper-concern has a net effect of making kids more fragile,” says Hara Estroff Marano who’s been warning about this for fifteen years now and spoke about it brilliantly in her book A Nation of Wimps. “So many teens have lost the ability to tolerate distress and uncertainty, and a big reason for that is the way we parent them,” says Kevin Ashworth, clinical director at the Northwest Anxiety Institute in Portland, Oregon.

The impact shows up early in children.

The truth is that kids are naturally anti-fragile. We adults actually make them fragile through our current leadership practices. Watch toddlers learn to walk; they fall and get up and fall and get up again. They bump their heads, their elbows, and their knees. But they just keep going. Why? Their ambition to explore uncharted territory. As they grow older, we begin to make them afraid. Watch a young child, just past the toddler age, bump his head or fall down. By this time, the child has learned to look to adults nearby to seek out their response. If adults panic and quickly rush to the child, they are conditioned to panic as well. They mirror our emotions.

What is the message we send to them these days?

  • Play is safe.
  • Don’t take risks.
  • Whatever you do, don’t fail.
  • Avoid getting hurt at all costs.

How to Raise Healthy Kids in a Fearful Culture

1. Use wisdom, not fear, to motivate them.

Many adults leverage fear in the early stages of a child’s life. We say, “Don’t play near traffic. You’ll get hit by a car!” Or, “Don’t climb that tree. You could fall and break your arm!” It’s far better to use wisdom as a motivator: “Be wise when you play outside and always look both ways if you’re near a road to see the cars.” And, “Always think before you climb a tree. You’ll want to use wisdom to know if you should climb.” My mom was great at doing this, and I never remember fearing anything or ever breaking a bone. She built wisdom, not fear, in me.

2. Instead of obsessing over what could go wrong, envision what could go right.

All of us carry a narrative inside our heads. Since we value our kids so much, we desire to protect them from any harm. This is natural. What we don’t see is the damage we do to their psyche with our fear narrative. Instead of being preoccupied with potential disasters, thus creating a lesser version of them as young adults, what if we saw the potential success they could experience by taking appropriate risks and trying new things?

3. Help tweens, teens, and young adults weigh their options.

Ultimately, we want to cultivate good decision-makers from our young people. So, have them start early on weighing out the pros and cons, identifying the options in their choices. Help them see what could go right and wrong and empower them to own their decisions. After all, we can’t safeguard them their entire lives. I believe we should start early, helping them take responsibility for the benefits and consequences of their thinking. This fosters healthy maturity.

4. Encourage age-appropriate risks.

One way to diminish some anxiety from our kids’ lives is to enable them to try new things to prove they can, indeed, survive. They don’t need to fear many realities they often fear. Lenore Skenazy did this when her 9-year-old son begged her to ride the NY subway. She let him do it, giving him all he’d need to navigate his day and later debriefing what he felt comfortable doing. She later wrote a book called Free-Range Kids, encouraging parents to let go of the paranoia they have over our scary world.

If you appreciated this article, it’s an excerpt from our new book, Generation Z Unfiltered: Facing Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Population. For this week only, when you purchase this book you will receive a free copy of Habitudes for Communicators. Click here to learn more.

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How to Raise Healthy Kids in a Fearful Culture