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Are you a risk-averse parent?

For the sake of our children, discover how to be flexible when judging situations with risk and enable them to evaluate for themselves in order to build important skills.

NEWS 27 Mar 2024

The arrival of another school holiday period brings with it plenty of opportunities for unstructured play time, new activities and experiences. While that play comes in many forms, being active and outdoors can be especially exciting and rewarding for children. Embracing their adventurous side might generate some anxiety and uncertainty — especially for parents, who can be even more worried about potential risks. In fact, Australian parents are some of the most averse to risk in the entire world.

Whilst it is important to be aware of risks and how to navigate them safely, encouraging children to head into the world with confidence is a key part of their development and overall wellbeing. The aim is not to stop children from play entirely — it is to support them as they find the rewarding experiences that are found with a little adventure.

How can I identify if I’m being averse to risk in my parenting?

It is only natural for parents to think about the potential risks our children might face, especially when they are playing, exploring or being active outside. Knowing the difference between a reasonable amount of risk awareness versus being entirely averse to risk is important, especially when it comes to supporting children through their own risk aversion.

Neringa Smith, Haileybury’s Director of Counselling Services, encourages parents to start reflecting on risk aversion by ‘being aware of their own perceptions and beliefs towards making mistakes, risk-taking and fear of injury’. This reflection is an essential first step, as it gives us the chance to consider what is a reasonable amount of concern, and where our own past experiences might be heightening this apprehension. “Thinking about their own childhood experiences with risk and how this may be influencing their beliefs to help re-set and develop a more balanced view,” says Neringa.

Once parents have reflected on their own attitudes towards risk, they are in a better position to support their child or children — who might be experiencing anxiety around certain types of play.

“Listen to your child’s language. They may be using words like ‘scary’ and ‘nervous’. If they do, ask them why they think that. Also, they may say ‘I couldn’t do that’. If so, try to find out what is making them not want to give it a go.”

Finding the best way to navigate potential risks

Every child is unique. They will all have a different attitude towards play and taking risks — and parents will need to take similarly different approaches in discussing these activities with them.

Some parents might feel like the safest way to protect their child’s wellbeing is to put a stop to potentially risky activities altogether. Using this kind of ‘stop language’ might reduce the risk, but it also reduces the opportunity for children to learn how to stay safe or consider why certain activities need to be approached with care in the first place.

For these reasons, having conversations about potential risks might actually be more beneficial than using stop language. As Neringa says, “These conversations are good learning opportunities, and minimise some risk, prior to a child having a go. Using stop language tells the child what not to do but doesn’t help them to understand why they must stop or how to do something safely.”

If your child is showing a curiosity or interest in play — particularly in the outside world — that is bringing up feelings of risk aversion, consider a conversation rather than stopping them from engaging in the activity entirely. It could be something that benefits you both!

When is risk-taking a positive thing?

While certain activities or actions are always going to be too risky, there are positives to encouraging some age-appropriate risk-taking for children. Embracing this approach has been found to correlate with increased levels of unstructured play, along with other benefits in a child’s personal development.

Grit, resilience and confidence are some of the key benefits that can stem from encouraging children to get out there and give new activities and experiences a go.

“Teaching and encouraging grit and perseverance is not about ‘tough love’, but providing encouragement and support for children to persevere at activities and tasks that are age-appropriate and match their ability level”

“They’re not too easy and not too hard — but just right.”

Giving children the chance to safely experience the reward that comes from risk-taking is a key factor in Haileybury encouraging students to engage in outdoor play and activity. It is also one of the many benefits students gain from attending school camps. These experiences encourage students to try out all sorts of rewarding physical challenges they may not have done before — like high ropes courses, a giant swing or flying fox.

“These activities can be scary, but getting past the ‘scare’ and then achieving it builds great confidence — and a real sense that ‘I can do this’,” says Diane. “When children achieve these goals, they can be referred to in the future when facing new challenges.”

Encouraging your child to take some safe risks

Time spent outdoors is often the ideal way for children to build some confidence and resilience, and to learn the difference between activities that test their abilities and activities that are unsafe. As a parent, you can look for opportunities for your child to engage in age-appropriate play that matches where they are at in their growth. Be intentional with how you spend time in the natural environment.

“The natural environment provides many opportunities to build grit and resilience as children test their abilities,” says Neringa. “With young children it is simply taking them to a park and allowing them time and space to explore, while monitoring at a safe distance. As they grow older and they become more familiar with their abilities, allow them opportunity to explore further away from you.”

Keep in mind that it is completely natural for some children to feel uncertain or anxious as they explore new activities. As adults, we have a great opportunity to support children in understanding potential risks, and feeling curious and supported enough to play in ways that will continue to shape them into resilient individuals, ready to navigate the broader world with confidence.