Tips for Balancing Freedom and Safety

Parenting out of fear can undermine making well-reasoned decisions
June 9, 2021 Updated: June 9, 2021

Allowing your child more freedom often feels linked to concerns for their safety. Younger kids want to ride their bikes beyond their streets. Preteens want to hang out with friends after school in the town center. Teens want to go to parties. Older teens ask to borrow the car to drive with friends.

A child’s job is to become more independent, push limits when appropriate, explore the world, and gain knowledge through direct experiences. Your job is to encourage this process of growth and development, but safely and smartly.

But parents can easily freeze up when they face these parenting situations. They run the latest news headlines through their mind and feel fear. When you allow fear and worry, or even anger, to surface during your parenting, you aren’t your best. You’re leading your kids with your emotional brain centers—you’re parenting via your primitive limbic system.

When emotional, you lose access to the most important parts of your thinking apparatus, your executive functions and decision-making abilities. You want to parent with your frontal cortex.

Here are a few tips.

Don’t make parenting decisions while emotional.

Decision-making should always be a logical task. Follow basic steps to slow the process down and follow procedures and rules. Never make important decisions on the fly. Enlist other viewpoints, such as checking in with spouses, trusted relatives, friends, other parents, or maybe even teachers and coaches.

Watch less cable news.

Studies show that watching news events on screens too long, particularly 24/7 cable news, can leave you with more traumatic feelings than people who were actually at those events. You aren’t getting the news or staying informed as much as overstimulating your limbic system. You believe the world is far less safe than it actually is.

Stop over-communicating your fears to your children.

Tell them how you think and feel based on what you know rather than proclaiming that some activity is dangerous, like “Kids get killed all the time doing that.” When you communicate what you are fearful of more calmly, it helps to keep your child or teen calm as well.

Plan additional freedoms ahead of time.

Devise a simple plan that rewards greater freedom for small steps of compliance. Keep moving your kids further out into the world in graded steps, tied to them showing small gains.

Anthony Rao is a nationally known child psychologist. For more than 20 years, he was a psychologist at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. He is the co-author of “The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions & Create a Life on Your Own Terms.”