by Jason Phillips
“Kids can smell our parental agendas,” said Dr. Alex Russell during his talk at Dundas Valley Montessori School on Wednesday, April 17. “I was this close to being a crazed hockey dad,” he confessed while explaining to parents and educators the importance of allowing children to grow up with appropriate amounts of anxiety.
Peppering his talk with illustrative personal anecdotes and cases from his clinical practice, Dr. Russell described how anxiety is something that parents need to identify and manage, and that kids be allowed to experience.
“The world is a place to play, and to take on frustration,” said Russell. “Kids need to develop frustration tolerance.”
Frustration tolerance is developed by allowing children to experience anxiety-inducing situations without unnecessary intervention from parents or adults. It is OK to be anxious, but “parents must manage their anxiety to allow kids to go out in the world and experience it,” he said.
“The most important part of parenting is recognizing and validating your kids experiences, what is called ‘minding’ children — keeping them in mind.”
“We want children to take on anxiety in adaptive ways,” Russell explained. He told the story of his own son receiving his driver’s license and having his first brush with the police. His son then became somewhat anxious about the police and traffic laws and became a more cautious driver. According to Russell, “This is good anxiety.”
Drawing from his clinical practice, Russell recounted the case of a boy who was disinterested in, and disengaged from, following school and career paths. From this boy, Russell learned a metaphorical phrase that he uses to describe the dominant anxiety facing children today: “the looming conveyor belt of life.”
The conveyor belt carries kids along a prescribed path of “should” and “expectation” — parent and teacher “shoulds” and “expectations.” It “travels the path of marks equal money,” Russell explained. “Attempts to meet these expectations lead to anxiety.”
“Boys tend to want to just jump off the conveyor belt, avoid it,” he said. “They maybe don’t have enough anxiety.”
This explains the preponderance of boys seeking solace in video game worlds, for example, explained Russell.
“Girls cope by running on the belt as fast as possible, too much anxiety,” said Russell.
Regardless of how kids seek to cope, “children are growing up in adult-controlled realities in a way that is unprecedented. Children with panic disorders are more common in clinical practice.”
“Unique to this generation of parenting are heightened feelings that our kids behaviour reflects on us as parents,” said Russell, explaining how and why children’s contemporary realities are so “adult-controlled.” We worry that what our kids do (or don’t do), and what they become (or don’t), says something about our identities, both publicly and personally. We become so worried that we try to exert control over our children’s lives to such a degree that “children don’t have a chance to develop their own relationships with the world,” says Russell.
It’s not all bad news, though. Russell also points out that the current generation of parents are “also the best parents ever. We have access to an abundance of information about parenting.” Trying to negotiate this abundance of information is difficult. There is so much that parents can do for their children that it is easy to find ourselves overly controlling our children’s realities before we even realize it — such as being “this close to being a crazed hockey dad,” when all you really want is for your kid to have the best, most advantageous experience possible.
“Parents need to recognize and identify their feelings in order to control them,” says Russell. “Natural consequences are how we learn. Kids need to learn how to manage themselves in reality, not how to manage their parents reactions.”
That bears repeating:
Kids need to learn how to manage themselves in reality, not how to manage their parents reactions.
This is the phrase that stuck with me after Russell’s talk. As parents, the best thing we can do is get out of our kids way and let them get on with being themselves in the world they want to inhabit.
Russell points out that our parental anxiety “ratchets up when kids are in school.” The “looming conveyor belt of life” travels right through school and is often the child’s first scrape with anxiety. Russell reminds us that we “don’t want kids to leave the park without a couple scrapes” as they learn to run, climb, and swing. “We should also not be anxious about school scrapes,” he says.
“Kids need to develop their own relationship with school. They shouldn’t be going to school for you.”
When kids encounter difficult situations, Russell asks us to “recognize and validate” their experiences, but don’t just bail them out. When children get themselves through a sticky situation, Russell says to “build the child’s sense of self through recognition and validation, but don’t overpraise (see Carol Dweck on the perils of overpraising kids).
Recognition and validation is “the minding function” that Russell encourages us to reach for. “Parental anxiety interferes with the ‘minding function’,” he says. “It puts kids at greater risk. It takes kids’ attention away from the world they are learning to manage and puts their emphasis on managing their parents.” Sometimes, even though we are just trying to protect our kids, we can do more harm than good by interfering too much.
“Don’t act on your anxiety,” Russell recommends. “Identify and control it before reacting. Perfectly sensible young people make reckless choices when their concern is managing parents, not managing the worlds they are in.”
Russell also explained anxiety: “Anxiety is in the same emotional family as fear. A base emotion. Fight or flight. Fear is in the moment. Anxiety is precipatory. It is fear, plus planning. We live in a complex, think ahead society. We need kids to learn to take on the right amounts of anxiety.”
As anxiety builds with anticipation — of a test, a deadline, a competition — both adults and children can seek avoidance (the flight part of fight or flight). “Parents need to help kids avoid avoidance,” says Russell, “because avoidance is addictive.”
Russell also emphasizes that not all anxiety is bad. “Mid-range anxiety level is useful,” he says. “It leads to alert, focused engagement with the world, a state of Flow. Keep perspective in anxious moments. They are how our kids learn about anxious situations.”
When it comes to speaking with your kids in such moments, Russell recommends:
“Interact with your kids as if they are one developmental stage ahead of where they are at. It’s what we do instinctively: talk to kids before they can talk, for example. We tend to not do this as much as kids age. Don’t finger-wag (but boy do we want to as parents). It takes kids’ focus off the real experience. Let the experience teach. Kids need to be allowed to feel anxious for themselves.”
All of this isn’t to say we’re off the parenting hook. “Learning to manage anxiety comes not from parental instruction, but from parental conduct, especially during first 6-7 years,” says Russell.
For those of you with kids in Casa, there’s still hope. For the rest of us, oh crap!
Russell did let us off the hook a little at the end:
“We don’t want to give our kids everything they want all the time. It’s OK to be good enough. All you can do is do your best.”
On Wednesday, May 8, DVMS will host a follow-up Parent Education Evening based on Dr. Russell’s talk. We put this summary article together so that everyone can attend and participate, even if you weren’t at the original talk. The evening will start with a social at 5:30 and the discussions will begin at 6:00 until about 7:30.
In the meantime, we are asking you to post your questions and comments below. Tell us what you want to discuss and we will be better able to guide the discussion on May 8th.
See you there.