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It is amazing how fast things are changing. There were no TVs when my grandmother was little and now we all carry screens in our pockets. According to Bloomberg Opinion, “The pace of innovation and disruption is accelerating.” In the last 20 years we have seen a huge acceleration in the melting of the ice sheets. Greenland’s mass variation is 286.0 Gigatonnes per year according to Data from NASA‘s GRACE satellites since 2002. Parenting in these modern times can mean facing fear and overcoming anxiety and uncertainty so we can allow our children to build adaptability and resilience.
Today I have expert on to share with us her perspective. Madeline Levine, Ph.D. is a psychologist, educator and co-founder of Challenge Success, a project of the Stanford Graduate School of Education. She is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well. Her latest book, Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain World is on sale February 11th, 2020 (affiliate link below). She understands the importance of parents overcoming uncertainty and helping their children to develop flexibility, resilience, and confidence even in uncertain times.
Overcoming Fear and Uncertainty to Help Our Children Thrive
By Madeline Levine, PhD
For more than a decade I’ve been crisscrossing the United States talking about rising rates of anxiety and depression in our kids, and more recently, about parenting challenges in our rapidly changing and uncertain environment. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with groups of all stripes: public, private, liberal, conservative, rural, urban, and most everything in between. But what has genuinely surprised me is the uniformity of concerns, regardless of which community I’m in. Parents want to know what to worry about and what they can safely take off their plates. They want to know how to prepare their kids to be successful in a future that seems so unpredictable. How to deal with the endless alarming news about children and teenagers. Most of all, they want to know how to protect their kids and ensure some stability for them in a world that seems anything but.
Parents are worried sick about their children’s prospects in an unstable world teeming with threats near and far—whole categories of jobs disappearing, not just to other countries, but everywhere, forever; global financial upheaval; terrorist attacks; refugees in misery; the environment under assault from poisons and rising temperatures. Parents always want what is best for their children. But social currents driven in large part by our uncertain era keep pulling families off course. Not knowing what’s coming next, or what to do for our kids in place of the things we’ve always done, has caused us to double down on the old ways. We get conservative and look to the past for solutions when we should be looking to the future.
Constant oversight also means that kids are protected from the mandatory bumps needed to learn that they can be challenged, even defeated, and recover. Or better yet, learn to savor the experience of being challenged. When children are denied the opportunity to figure out their own values, desires, and interests, the outcome is often a despairing dependency, the antithesis of healthy autonomy. Ten years ago, my young patients were in a fury about the parental yoke: “It’s my life! Tell my mom and dad to back off. I’ll figure it out myself!” One of the most disturbing developments in recent years has been the fading of youthful rebellion among the teenagers I see. It’s been replaced with resignation and a jaded demeanor I’d expect from folks many years older who had to work at jobs they despised in order to support a family or pay a mortgage. “You don’t understand,” these teens will say, shaking their heads. “There is no way out of the next three years. I’m just going to suck it up. I have no choice.” The belief that you can’t act on your own behalf is a significant contributor to depression at any age.
Agency is the belief that you have the power to take actions that will have an impact on your immediate environment. The alternative is feeling powerless, which leads to demoralization and victimization. By micromanaging children—not just at school but on play dates, on the soccer field, at grandma’s, in the clothing store—parents hamper their kids’ ability to discover themselves and advocate for their own agenda. It’s true whether it’s a 3-year-old who wants to wear mismatched socks or a teenager who wants to quit playing cello even though continuing might give her an edge in college admissions.
Decades of research on the human response to unpredictability, risk, and ambiguity tell us that our brains do not function optimally under any of these conditions. We tend to make compromised decisions when probable outcomes are unclear. We like predictability and still have our savannah ancestors’ DNA ordering us to escape or kill as quickly as possible when circumstances become uncertain and threatening. But we don’t live on the savannah, and our children will be required to come up with far more complex solutions than fight or flee. How can we prepare them for a future we can barely imagine ourselves?
In attempting to answer that question for my book, Ready or Not, I delved into the heart of the dilemma: the nature of uncertainty. I studied how it affects our brains and how that influences our decision-making process, especially when it comes to decisions about our kids. I looked at the strong correlation between uncertainty and anxiety, and at how they amplify each other. I reviewed notes on the many families I’ve counseled and was able to trace a connection between anxiety, parental overprotection, and a condition called accumulated disability: the impairment of life skills and the ability to cope, adapt, and function. Learned helplessness, the belief that you are powerless to change your circumstances despite evidence to the contrary, can also be linked to the anxiety-fueled parental overprotection that’s a by-product of our unstable age.
It’s only natural for parents to be more focused on tomorrow’s negative possibilities than its positive potential. Fear of the unknown and resistance to change is hardwired into our brains. It’s an evolutionary survival response. How do we liberate ourselves? We start by learning how the brain processes uncertainty so we can more easily override these ancient responses and take a fresh and open-minded look at how best to prepare our children for all the uncertainty, opportunity, and astonishing change likely to occur in their lifetimes.
The future may well hold remarkable opportunities for our kids to live lives that are longer and more varied, healthy, and productive than those of any previous generation. Along with preparing them for the uncertainty of this century, we need to remind them and ourselves that the experience is likely to be extraordinary. They’ll talk about their youth to their own children, perhaps with awe and gratitude that they were raised during such a fascinating and unprecedented era.
How do you stay upbeat and overcome fear and anxiety while parenting in these modern times? What strategies do you use to override your reflex reaction to uncertainty and stay grounded in your decision making?