Kids less anxious if their parents play with them, says Australian and Dutch research

Stock image.
Stock image.

PARENTS who play games with their kids, challenge them to a race, or simply muck about with rough-and-tumble activities may be helping reduce the chances of them developing anxiety problems.

A recent study by Australian and Dutch researchers found that certain behaviours by parents plays a role in protecting preschoolers from becoming anxious because they are encouraged to take safe risks.

They studied a group of 312 families and discovered that mums and dads who used more so-called challenging parent behaviour (CPB) had kids whose anxiety levels were significantly less than others.

Previous research established links between how over-controlling, or helicopter-style, parenting can heighten anxiety in kids.

The study by researchers from Sydney’s Macquarie University and University of Amsterdam, however, focused on parenting behaviour that may actual protect children from becoming anxious.

One of the study’s co-authors Rebecca Lazarus said behaviours that can have protective effects on kids included giving them a fright, teasing, rough-and-tumble play and encouraging them to be assertive and take risks.

“The idea behind CPB is it gives children exposure to safe risk, so things that might be a bit anxiety provoking but lets them know that it’s actually ok,” Ms Lazarus said.

“It’s this repeated exposure to things that might feel unsafe that reduces their anxiety and they learn they can cope by themselves.”

Ms Lazarus said many other studies had shown that mums and dads who use “cotton wool” style parenting and restrict their kids from doing things that are age-appropriate put their youngsters at risk of developing anxiety.

“That gives children the message that the world is a scary place and I need protection from it,” she said.

Seven per cent of Aussie kids aged between four and 17 are estimated to have anxiety issues.

Ms Lazarus, a PhD candidate who worked at Macquarie’s Centre for Emotional Health when the study was conducted, said there were many simple everyday ways parents could display CPB to help their kids.

“It could be things like encouraging the child if they are cautious about approaching something, so like a dog in a park,” she said.

“They might be frightened of dogs, but you can encourage them by showing them how you approach a dog and let it sniff your hand.

“It also includes competitions like running races or playing games with kids. It’s all safe and gentle but it lets kids have that experience at losing and what that feels like.”

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, also noted more studies were needed into CPB as a possible treatment for anxiety in children.