Can Parental Anxiety Interfere with a Child's Social and Emotional Development?

Kids need to fend for themselves to develop healthy self-esteem.

Posted Nov 09, 2010

Laura (not her real name), a 32 year old attorney, freezes up whenever she has to invite a friend to meet for a drink, a game of tennis, or a movie. "It's been like this for as long as I can remember--I feel awkward and uncomfortable calling anyone. So, I just wait to be asked-or I wind up staying home. Maybe I have social anxiety..."

While Laura is comfortable in interpersonal situations--she shines at professional meetings, navigates business lunches, and engages others on dates and at parties--Laura has one major difficulty: she cannot initiate any type of get-together. This leaves her home alone most nights of the week.

What causes an otherwise competent adult to feel incapable and even immobilized when it comes to picking up the telephone to make a plan? In Laura's case, her social problems were helped along by an overly- attentive mother who meant well but allowed scant opportunities for Laura to assert her independence or plan her own activities. By the time Laura got to college, the prospect of making social plans remained so nerve-wracking, she stopped trying altogether.

Overplanning for your child can backfire
Who hasn't stood in Laura's mother's shoes--calling around for a play-date, or arranging a party, for example--just to ensure that little Johnny's dance card is full? Helping a child's social life along is a common expression of parental love--but it can backfire.

"If a ten year old has always had her schedule planned for her, she might never learn to do it on her own," says Richard Hoetzel, M.D., an adult and child psychiatrist in New York City. In other words, when everything is overplanned for a child, she might never go through the exercise of learning crucial interpersonal skills that will be important for success in later life.

"Children who never have to approach a peer to ask about a social plan, don't have the same opportunities as others to assert themselves socially. They don't necessarily experience rejection, or go through the process of learning who is a good match for them, or who is and who isn't a friend," Dr. Hoetzel continues.

Rejection Can Be the Kindest Cut

While protecting your child from rejection sounds like a desired outcome, parents who try to do so may wind up interfering with the acquisition of a necessary life skill. Learning to handle rejection is actually an important part of personality development.

Though personality development sounds complicated, here's, in essence, how it works: personality is shaped over time, the result of repeated interactions between infants and children and their caregivers.  A responsive, tuned in parent or caregiver helps development along by encouraging the understanding of and providing a means for dealing with emotions and thoughts (which occur spontaeously), and situations which the infant/child encounters in the outside world. Parental responsiveness also includes the setting of appropriate limits (one way to look at it is that every "no," and each restriction or constraint helps shape and build a child's character,and helps that child function in the world). 

Limits are key in fostering healthy character development, to be sure, but what does all this have to do with making social plans? A lot, actually: hearing the word "no" from a peer who is responding to a social invitation, while disappointing, might help a child to understand that there is another person with separate needs in the equation.  The ability to consider the needs of another goes a long way towards helping a child to build solid relationships with family and peers.

And though it sounds counterintuitve, limits and rejection can actually foster the development of healthy self-esteem--and the parent who allows a child to plan his or her own schedule (at least whenever possible) provides the framework and opportunity for the child to develop healthy self-esteem, even as he or she creates the possibility of rejection. According to Dr. Hoetzel, "All kids wonder whether others like them. Asking for social plans can actually be a positive experience, as a positive response from a peer reinforces feelings of being liked." Feelings of being liked beget more attempts at social planning, which, over time provides positive reinforcement and leads to development of healthy self-esteem.  Parents who overplan, then, might actually be denying their children opportunities to get positive feedback from peers.

Children Need to Learn How to Be Alone

Some parents acknowledge that they fill up their children's schedules out of anxiety about allowing too much downtime or time alone.  "Some plan myriad activities and playdates because they feel like a busy child is happier, or a child without social plans is lonely. But, being alone is not the same thing as being lonely," says Ava Spector Kaplan, M.S., an educator in Southwest Florida. "Sometimes time alone just the ticket," she continues.

Spector-Kaplan may be onto something--many parents do think busier is better. Nevertheless, kids need time alone and down time every day so they can process daily events, solve problems, relax, imagine, and play. Parents who let their own anxiety about giving children a leg up (will Jenny make the team? Does Jonny need extra practice with math?), might actually do their children a disservice in the long run by signing them up for activity upon activity, and lesson upon lesson, day after day.

Young children don't actually need activities every day of the week. Preschool and young elementary school children do best when given time and space for imaginations run to wild. Children of this age need basic play things like blocks, dolls, cars and trucks, crayons and paper, puppets, dress up clothing, and pots and pans (read: not technology) to stimulate creativity and free play. And they require time to play in an unfettered way-not fifteen minutes in the stroller, car, or bus between structured activities.

Young children also need to develop the capacity to be alone.  This happens over time as they take in a caregiver or a parent's responses, attitudes, and limits, and all of those identifications become part of and remain inside the child.  This is one of the ways they become more comfortable in the world and learn it is a good place. And the child who is loaded up with daily activities might never have get comfortable with the idea of being alone with him or herself, or with frightening or overwhelming thoughts or feelings.

What causes so many parents to over-schedule their children, then, and to hover over them in sometimes intrusive, ways? The reasons are likely as varied as individuals themselves, but several stand out: anxious parents may want to give children a leg-up in a competitive society, may feel like busier is better, or may have difficulties with separation and giving up control. So, they load their children up on play-dates and activities--and this makes them feel like they are being "good" moms and dads.

What can you do if you feel the pull to "helicopter" and over-plan your child's schedule? First, take a deep breath and a step back, and then try to relax. Next time Suzy asks you to schedule a play date, encourage her to pick up the phone and do it for herself. Most kids will thrive when given the opportunity to make their own plans. Many need less parental help organizing--they actually have many more skills than their parents acknowledge.    

[Many thanks to A.B. who provided a brilliant hook for this post].