Parenting the Mental Health Generation

Avoiding the Overparenting Trap

November 27, 2023 CATCH, Community Action Together for Children's Health Season 3 Episode 4
Parenting the Mental Health Generation
Avoiding the Overparenting Trap
Show Notes Transcript

Parents are facing real pressures to keep kids active, focused, and accomplished.  But to what end?  The award-winning documentary, Chasing Childhood, emphasizes the importance of free play and independence as the keys to a kid’s success.  In this episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation, we dig into what’s best for our children and offer guidance on avoiding the overparenting trap.

Chasing Childhood Documentary

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[00:00:00] Amy O. Executive Director, CATCH: Last month, CATCH hosted a screening of an award-winning documentary, Chasing Childhood. It sparked an earnest discussion about the pressures current parents face to do it all, the risks of overprotecting our children, and how we, as a community, can make little changes that have a big impact on the mental health of our kids.

Dr. Lisa, CATCH Board member: And today, we have a wonderful guest who came to continue the conversation that was started at that documentary screening. We're here with Moriah Bracken, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Bracken Therapies. Welcome. I'm Lisa.

Amy O.: And I'm Amy. We are the hosts of Parenting the Mental Health Generation. We're excited to have Moriah here with us today. As a former school social worker, a current private practice owner, and a longtime advocate for mental health, Moriah comes with a range of perspectives on how to parent with intention to help raise resilient and well-adjusted kids.

Dr. Lisa: You don't need to have seen the documentary to connect with these ubiquitous parenting issues that we chat about today. So put in your earbuds, take these 30 minutes for you, and enjoy our conversation with Moriah.

Amy O.: Welcome! 

[00:01:24] Dr. Lisa: Thanks for coming.

Moriah Bracken, LCSW, Bracken Therapies: Thank you so much for having me. It's so great to be here.


Dr. Lisa: We are very excited. And we know that some of our listeners have not actually seen the film Chasing Childhood that is the spark of our conversation. So, if you don't mind starting by just sharing a little bit about what the film is about, that would be great.

Moriah Bracken: It was a great film. about, the current overscheduling of kids in our society and the increased expectations put on kids and the need to let our kids play more and let kids develop within their childhood instead of having these grand expectations for them.

Dr. Lisa: And it feels like it comes at such a stark contrast to what childhood looked like several decades ago and a couple of generations back. And I just think about conversations that I have with my parents about what their childhood looked like. Right. You know, the movie talks a lot about kids coming home from school and dropping their backpack at the door and then running back out on the streets until the cowbell rings for dinner and everyone comes back inside. And it is just so different today.

[00:02:39] Moriah Bracken: For sure. It seems like first, you have to know where your kid is at all times. And especially now with technology, you're able to do that. And sometimes I think that increases that anxiety of needing to know where your child is at all time. And then I think something that they really highlighted well in the film is if you want your kid to go out and play, there's no one there to play with them because everyone has soccer, has dance class, has Sunday school, Hebrew school, there's this need to have even the play scheduled. And is that really play?

Amy O.: Well, what is the big deal with play? Why is independent play so important? Because I think a couple of the parents in the movie, or maybe it was the kids who reminded us, you know, their parents are afraid that they're going to get bored, and we don't want our kids to be bored. Do we? Or do we?

[00:03:39] Moriah Bracken: I think boredom is really wonderful and a really great time to grow these social emotional skills. As a school social worker, we've seen a big wave to increase more of that social emotional learning within our school day. But with play, all of that happens more naturally. During play, there's problem solving, there's teamwork, there's learning how to handle disappointments. And not only how to handle those disappointments, but how do we recover from those disappointments? There's learning how to work with people and work with peers who you may not get along with. So, how do we communicate more effectively. All of that happens during play. And when it's more structured or more guided by adults, our children are losing the capability to do that on their own.

[00:04:35] Dr. Lisa: Yes. And on top of all the things you just mentioned, I would also add that play includes some risk taking that I think parents and adults aren't really allowing their kids to experience and I'm very much guilty of this too. There was a scene in the movie where there was a dad watching his, you know, two-year-old kind of climbing on the structures of the playground and every step she took, he was like, be careful, be careful, don't slip, don't fall. But what that does is teach our children that the world is unsafe, that it is to be feared. And then that fosters that further avoidance of anything where you're stepping outside of your comfort zone, which really creates lots of anxiety and other challenges down the road.

[00:05:20] Moriah Bracken: For sure and we also talk about this, if you want to use the term helicopter parenting, of how about I do everything to protect you from experiencing these feelings of discomfort? Because, of course, as a parent, we don't want to see our children uncomfortable or anxious or having to go through something hard, but I think what we're now seeing is that parents are over accommodating and preventing their own children from learning the skills. So then maybe, you know, your child's not at home, maybe they're off to college or living independently and they come to a bump in the road. And if they're so used to the parents managing that situation for them, they don't have the tools to do it themselves. So, I think we also need to think about what is the benefit of protecting from these risks and what can I do to maybe let them experience it a little bit so they can learn how to overcome it?

Amy O.: When you were talking, it reminded me that means that we as parents have to learn to be uncomfortable when our kids are, you know when my daughter was struggling, so with her mental illness, obviously her struggles were intense and really difficult to watch, but I know even when she was a little kid, I did not like to see her sad or lonely or left out or struggling with feelings of inadequacy. So, what can we say to parents if they can come to the decision that this is in fact good for my children, what can we say to them to make them feel more comfortable in their own anxiety?

[00:07:19] Moriah Bracken: I think that's a great question and such a great point and I think we have to kind of distinguish what's over protectiveness versus supporting our kids during these times. And I think that looks like we can validate to our kids this is hard. I can see this is upsetting. We should be validating those emotions because it is true. Feeling left out does feel hard. And then how can we give them the confidence and help them with the strategies on how to overcome it. We talk a lot about in the work I do using those supportive statements which is validation and confidence. So also working with your kids on what can they do, what tools can they use and working with them instead of you just taking care of it all yourself, working with your child to find ways to manage those tough situations.

Dr. Lisa: And Moriah, those supportive statements that you referenced there, just to contextualize that. You mean something like, I know you're really scared right now, and I trust that you can do it. I trust that I can leave your room tonight and you'll be okay on your own.

Moriah Bracken: Yes, because I think the biggest misconception is, is I'm going to, for example, call the teacher for my child and take care of it. The messaging, while the intention, of course, is good of you wanting to be there for your child and like you said, Amy, not let them suffer, but the accidental messaging we're sending is, you're right, this is too hard. You can't do this on your own. And those are some of those long-term consequences where then as an older teenager, older young adults, our kids are having a more challenging time managing their anxiety.

[00:09:25] Amy O.: Let's get real here for a second. Do you think that parents are afraid to see their kids uncomfortable? Or do you think parents are afraid that if their kids are uncomfortable, they failed?

Moriah Bracken: I think it's all of that. When we talk about our community, there's so much pressure to be involved, get the grades, get into the best college you can. We must define what does parental success look like? Is it that we are getting into the top schools and over involved and high achieving and every single thing that comes across our plate? Or is our success looking like well adjusted, able to handle challenges. And even with our kids, knowing when they do need help and having a space where they are comfortable to tell parents, this is too much. Can we talk about this? And I think this was brought up in a wonderful way in the documentary where the people who were being interviewed of what is my end goal for my child and is what we're doing the best way to get there. And I think through the documentary we were given some examples of there's a middle ground.

[00:10:51] Amy O.: Can I take this personal for one second and just see where this goes? So, when I first started CATCH five years ago, I really did believe that sharing the story of my family, my daughter's journey was going to bring light bulb moments to my community. That if it could happen to the “O's”. And my daughter could be a part of the community that you just described. High pressure, excellent athletic organizations, you know, the ability to participate in a lot of things well. That if the “O's” could fall off and Shawn could struggle as much as she did, that we would all just take a second look. And of course, that's so important, obviously. That did not occur, and I guess my question is as a professional, how do you really communicate that to a parent or a family when a kid has fallen victim to this sort of lack of childhood, literally lack of childhood. That they've been going from the very beginning never stopping and then, “S###” hits the fan.

Moriah Bracken: And I think there's a lot of work around readjusting expectations at this moment, because sometimes parents come to me, and their child is in crisis. And so, we must think, let's work with the child who's in front of us right now, today. Let's meet our kids where they're at. And I think sometimes doing that, we need to set those expectations aside because that gets in the way of some of the work that needs to be done now. And I think by doing that and carrying that mindset of what do they need now, and I'm not saying that doesn't mean you have goals for your kids. We're teaching our children to make a goal and must take the steps to reach that goal. But I think sometimes if that's our only focus, we miss what's happening today. And that it's important to hold those two visions of our children together at the same time. Having an idea of where they can go, but also needing to see what they need right now in this moment because I think sometimes readjusting our expectations of what success looks like can help us support our children to reach their potential.

Dr. Lisa: It all makes sense and I think it makes sense to everyone who hears it and yet it's so hard to implement, right? I think it's, it's, it's hard to negate and yet it's still so hard to implement. And I think that there are biological bases for that. I mean, what we're really talking about here is a fear of missing out or a fear of being left out. And when we have these conversations and we look at parents and say, why is it so important to you that your seven-year-old child is in 20 hours a week of competitive dance, and these are the risks you're taking by putting that kind of pressure, the response we often get is because if she's not in dance this year, then everybody else will be more skilled than she is by next year. And then she won't have the opportunity to get back into the game at any point. And that fear is literally, that is a brain-based fear. We were left behind in, in our troops as animals and in earlier evolutionary stages, we died. And so, we are fighting against something really difficult. And I think we need to acknowledge that.

[00:14:43] Moriah Bracken: I think, you bring up a great point because I think we also need to acknowledge the system we're in. Sometimes when we think of the public school system, and it's made for a certain kind of learner, and if your child doesn't fall into that learning style, it might be more difficult, and then they're labeled this, and, the pressure of if you're attend a high school that's more college bound, that's an additional pressure, and so I think it's important to acknowledge the biology, and also that the system we're working within is kind of the opposite of what we're preaching.

Dr. Lisa: Yes, and I think that the documentary did a good job of explaining that too, because it went through a lot of the things that have happened in society really since the early 1980s that helped to explain why parents have moved towards this level of overprotection and this fear of what will happen to our children if we give them any sort of amount of independence. But one of the things that also talked about was the educational system and how, you know, America was not scoring well on standardized testing. And so, there was this push for increased education, more homework for elementary students, more standardized testing, and all of that adds pressure to the weight of our children. And that was something that I was really thinking about, too, when I pictured my parents running off on the street until 8 p. m. when it got dark outside. My first thought was, when are the kids doing their homework? And the answer is, back then, the 7, 8, 9, 10-year-olds didn't have homework to do. And so, there are more pressures that are very real in the society that you're right, we need to acknowledge.

Amy O.: One of the notes that I took in preparing to talk to Moriah today was childhood is personhood. I think it would be so important if we could all just sort of look at those little people as fully formed humans, and they are, who are capable of doing so much. And probably so much more than what we allow or give them credit to do. And part of that skill would be, mom, I'm, I'm too tired to do my homework tonight and I'm not going to do it. And that's okay. Like just allowing them to be people.

[00:17:14] Moriah Bracken: Yeah, I think part of why these conversations are so important, because of the fear of saying, yes, that's okay. Because yes, that might be okay in our home. But it's also the worry of then they're going to school and what's the teacher going to say? What does that mean for them as a student? What I hear all the time is, okay, if we don't make them do homework in middle school from the time when I was a middle school social worker. But then how are we going to prepare them for high school? And even if that's what they need in the moment, it's, it's that fear, kind of what you were talking about, Lisa, of, but then what? And what are they going to miss out on? And so that's where I think there needs to be a balance between the two. And I think even just being aware of. What's my reasoning for saying you don't have to do your homework as the parent? Am I saying you don't have to do your homework because you just don't want to? Or is it because your child's exhausted and drained and it's not going to serve them. It's going to be a bigger fight. We know they did the homework last night. They understand the concept. Maybe tonight is okay to say no. And I think asking the why or what's my motivation as the parent to push this and for us to pause and just reflect? I think giving ourselves the space to do that and to question ourselves why am I pushing this so hard? I think that can help determine are we doing this in the most supportive way.

Dr. Lisa: And that support piece feels so essential to me too. It goes back to the question of, you know, are, are we doing too much for our kids? And then, you know, of course the antithesis of that is just completely hands off what we would call maybe overly permissive parenting, which research suggests is not helpful either. And so how do we find that balance between, I'm here to support you and I want you to come to me when you need help or if you'd like some guidance and I will scaffold for you and, and work with you to find that place that you can show your skillset and that you're still building other skillsets and then slowly take that scaffolding away as you're becoming increasingly independent. But I don't see that happening enough right now. I see it just being too much is being done for kids and not enough of, we're teaching you how to do this for yourself.

[00:20:06] Moriah Bracken: Yeah. And how I've described it to some of my clients is there seems to have been like this huge shift of maybe our childhood. It was not much acknowledgement of feelings. It was, “get over it. You got this. Stop complaining.” And then, which I think is wonderful, there's been more of an acknowledgement of that social emotional side, that need to develop coping tools. We've realized that's important too. And unless that is in good shape, we can't access all the other “quote unquote” work stuff. So, then it seems like we've gone to this other extreme of the mental health side is so important. Let's do everything to protect it. And how do we find that balance of coming to the middle of like we said, what that support looks like, which is acknowledging the feelings. But encouraging and providing the tools to work through and manage.

Amy O.: You know, it kind of cracks me out that the three of us are sitting here talking. Like the, the premise of this conversation was about a movie entitled Chasing Childhood where the message we all received was that, that childhood in its essence has been taken away from our kids in so many ways. And yet our conversation has naturally moved to this idea of how we as adults can scaffold and support development and support social emotional learning and whatever. And I think what's important to remember is that what we want to be able to do is collaborate with our kids and be part of those decisions, but not necessarily be the decision makers. I can remember vividly when I was a kid and I have a couple of years on both of you that at the end of the day, my family of four would be at the table and we each had very different days. Our experiences were mine, my mom, my dad, my little sister, but we hadn't been on top of one another or known where one another was necessarily or had any conversations or texts or anything. So, it was just sort of a vomit of share. Nowadays, my guess is that because everyone knows where everyone is that it's so different. So, I guess I just wanted to point out that I thought it was interesting that our conversation had morphed back into this sort of, what can we do when what we really want to do is watch those kids do for themselves.

[Dr. Lisa: But I think that conversation is in part what kids can do for themselves. I think if we're not checking ourselves as the parents, as the teachers, as the caregivers, what should I be allowing my child to do? What is my child not yet ready to do? Then we can't give them the independence that they deserve. And so, you know, here's a prime example that really resonated with me. Talk about play and the importance of play. One of the things that all parents are trying to teach their children is these executive functioning skills, big buzzword, right? How do we plan and organize? It's incredibly essential for all aspects of our quote, success, however we want to define it. Certainly, once we get to middle school and we've got multiple teachers and multiple you know, notebooks, we must be able to navigate when our assignments due, where do I put them? Long term projects, tests I must study for. And then the film has this great example of a child who decided he wanted to throw his own party. He was 10 or 11. And the parents didn't think he was ready to do that. What do you mean throw your own party? You've never thrown a party before and they finally agreed and conceded and said, okay, kid, throw your own party. And they were blown away by the fact that he created a guest list and sent out invitations. He had a menu set and created a budget for how much it was going to cost to order the pizzas and get the sodas at the store and that literally, is through play and through creative, independent activities, building the executive functioning skills, the exact same skills that are needed to be successful in turning your work in on time. And so, as the parents, we must be asking ourselves, is my child ready for that? And if they're not fully ready to throw their own party, maybe they're eight and they can't do all those things, which parts can they do, and which parts can I help them with? And I believe that's how we build those skills.

Amy O.: I agree, except for I think you need to ask your kid, too. Not just yourselves, you must talk to your kid.

Dr. Lisa: I think that's essential. Absolutely.

[00:24:55] Amy O.: I think part of what we have to stay away from some sometimes is labeling everything. I mean, I was thinking back on my husband, who's the youngest of six kids. He was essentially ignored. And none, none of these thoughts went through his parents' head. I can guarantee you that one for sure. And he developed on his own a hundred percent. All the skills, executive functioning, and otherwise that he needs to be not only a good “C” student in high school, but a successful human being in life. And, you know, not everybody is as lucky as he is, but I do think that kids can come upon those things way more naturally than we believe they can, and that we have fallen into a trap in some ways of making sure that not only do they have ballet class and nutritious eating, but they also are working on their executive functioning skills. And I'm not taking away from what you said, Lisa, I'm just saying those will come because you'll be asked to put your laundry away and you'll be asked to pack your own backpack and you will be asked to, you know, do the things that you are equipped to do as a, as a human.

Moriah Bracken: I think that also comes back to what we were talking about earlier with the system we live in, but if I have access to give them the ballet class or I have the access to give them more direct executive functioning, shouldn't I do that? Isn't that what's best for them? And I think coming back to, yes, a lot of that can happen naturally. So again, bringing our kids voices back into it. And I know during the discussion of the film, we talked about it. I believe someone in the audience talked about signing up for soccer. And the question was, does your kid really like soccer? Do they want to be in soccer? And giving them a voice too. And giving time for these naturally occurring situations where they can practice these skills on their own and still help them reach and realize their potential. Realize what they're passionate about. What they enjoy. And I think that can happen hand in hand, and I think it takes more conversations like these so parents don't feel so alone in saying, I'm not going to sign up for this. Here's why. And I think discussing it more helps to normalize these thoughts and feelings and make it a part of our conversation. 

[00:27:31] Dr. Lisa: We might run out of time, and you might want to cut this out, but Amy, I feel like our listeners are going to challenge some of what you said a little bit though about, hey, you know, however many decades ago, we didn't have any of this and my husband turned out fine and it's just part of natural state of being. But we've all read the articles and the research and know that childhood looks different than it did 30, 40 years ago. It is more difficult in a lot of ways. We have social media, which adds layers of complexity. We have exposure to you know, news and information globally that children didn't see or have access to before. We've got way more homework and academic demands than were ever placed on kids before. And so as easy it is to say that we don't need any of this and we'll be fine. We don't really know necessarily if that's true given all the added layers of what kids these days must face in their day-to-day life.

Moriah Bracken: Yes, but again, it comes back to that balance of yes, childhood is not the same and expectations are a lot different and social media is a whole other podcast in and of itself. But I think making sure we don't go too off the rails in that. And bringing it back to how do we still manage to find these opportunities, and it may look different. I don't think it's going to be 100 percent of the time I'm going to drop my backpack, run outside, and come back by dark. But just finding some pockets of opportunity, I think, is our goal.

[00:29:20] Amy O.: I don't remember if it was someone at the event that said this or someone in the movie, but I, I also made a note that there was a remark made, I'm not asking my kid to be a superstar, I'm asking him if he wants to be a soccer player. I thought that was a good mindset to go into it with.

Moriah Bracken: Totally, and I think it's that question of the why. Why are we doing this? Are we doing this because my kid loves it and wants to be happy? Are we doing it because we think they need it for a college admissions letter? And, and I think it's okay if that is the reason, but let's just take the moment and ask ourselves the why. And if it's too much of one of, I'm doing this for college and not enough, I'm doing it because he loves it. Let's take a step back and let's look and let's question and let's talk and let's reprioritize and let's bring our kids into those discussions too.

Dr. Lisa: It sort of starts to feel like a damned if I do, damned if I don't kind of problem. You know, it's a problem if I overschedule my kids and have them in too many activities and provide too much support. But you know, on the other side, I think many parents feel like it's a problem if I don't sign my kid up for things and have them involved and then they're going to miss out on social opportunities. They're not going to have things to put on that college application. They won't be able to be in whatever advanced classes they have interest in taking if they don't take the precursors for those classes. And everything starts to be a decision made out of fear. Fear of what will happen if I don't make that decision. Fear out of what will happen if I don't do this right? And you know, the, the quote that stands out for me most, and I don’t have it in front of me, so I hope I don't butcher it too much, but what was said in the film is, “All of the worry in the world doesn't prevent death. It prevents life.” And we are missing the mark as parents on how to be more successful in managing that. 

[00:31:33] Moriah Bracken: I think it's like we need that reminder of maybe when we were growing up, we didn't have all of this, and we were fine. And there are kids out there with less opportunity and they're fine. And I think sometimes that reminder of, it's not necessarily about which level in soccer they're at. But do we have a safe place at home? Am I being as supportive as I can?

Dr. Lisa: Or even more directly, forget, you know, whether they won the soccer championship, but were they a good teammate to others? And did they have fun? Were they laughing? Did they get some energy out, right? What is the purpose of the activity to begin with?

Moriah Bracken: Absolutely. 

Amy O.: And if the purpose can be as simple as being in your childhood, like instead of always trying to get somewhere else, we're always trying to do things so that we can get to the next place, the next class, the next level, the college that we want, we can just be here. That will come and you have your entire life to be an overly stressed, busy adult. That comes, trust us all.

[00:32:48] Dr. Lisa: And Moriah, do you have any suggestions for our listeners before we close out here on what that could look like? What, what little steps we can take towards that end?

[Moriah Bracken: You know, I think even you, Lisa, brought up the great point of, after you watched the documentary, you realized, I will let my son, who was four at the time, five at the time, I will let him use a butter knife. He'll be okay. We don't need to go into this mindset of it's all or nothing, or I must commit to this one parenting style I've read about 100 percent of the time. I think that's also too big of a pressure to put on ourselves. But can I find an instance of someone reaching out and they want to play in the backyard. Oh, but there's homework, but there's this, but there's that. But you know what? Today, I'll let it happen that you go outside. It doesn't need to be this big commitment that you are going to alter all your decisions just to fit this free-range parenting lifestyle as they labeled it in the film. But I think just finding the pockets and the small opportunities is a great start and should feel like a success.

Dr. Lisa: I feel like this conversation is only just beginning. And like you said, it's going to be many more of these conversations over many more weeks and months and years for us to all really continue navigating how to strike that balance. I don't think we're particularly good at it yet, but I think we're all agreeing about how essential it really is for our children's health and success.

Moriah Bracken: And just having the conversation, I think, is so valuable because it gives us that time to reflect and look at what are we doing for this next generation of kids. 

[00:34:52] Amy O.: Well, it's always important to just think about It's okay to be you. It's okay to make decisions that are best for your family. It's okay to get off the treadmill of life and look a little different than the guy next to you, even if it's uncomfortable and scary. I think it's important to remember that.

Dr. Lisa: And for me, as a parent, it's been finding just a few other parents who feel that same way. It has been really comforting because to stand alone on an island is really, hard, but to feel like you've got one or two people in your court who get it and are living it and are feeling it and you can journey alongside it has been really a helpful part of this process for me.

Moriah Bracken: Absolutely. It's finding people who are going through this same journey because you shouldn't feel alone in this. It's, it's hard already. It can be isolating already and it doesn't have to be.

[00:35:48] Dr. Lisa: Well, Moriah, thank you. Thank you so much for your time today, for watching the film with us and being as passionate about it as we were. We really, really enjoyed the conversation.

Moriah Bracken: it's been so wonderful. Thank you so much.

Dr. Lisa: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in to another episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation.

Amy O.: Stay current on all CATCH programming by liking us on Facebook @CATCHisCommunity or by visiting our website,

[00:36:16] Dr. Lisa: We're glad that you joined us to continue this conversation. It's important to talk about our mental health and reach out for help if needed.