In 2023, Parents Need to Worry About Risk Deficit Disorder, Say Experts

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If you grew up in the ‘90s or ‘00s, chances are you have fond memories of roaming around the neighborhood by yourself, riding a bicycle without a helmet, and playing with some seriously hazardous toys (hello, Slip ‘N Slides). And sure, on the one hand, we sort of can’t believe we made it out alive. But on the other hand, perhaps all this independence at a young age is exactly what made us into the capable adults we are today? Are we doing the next generation a disservice with all our helicoptering, snowplowing and general hovering? According to researchers, the answer is yes. Here’s what parents should know about risk deficit disorder—including how to counteract it.

What Is Risk Deficit Disorder?

“[Risk deficit disorder] is where children, including adolescents, are not exposed to graduated levels of healthy risk throughout their developmental years,” says David Eager, Professor of Risk Management and Injury Prevention at the University of Technology Sydney. Eager coined the term and posited in his research that this lack of risk has huge consequences for how our kids turn out as adults, namely that they will not develop critical life skills such as persistence, resilience and problem-solving. (It’s important to note that risk deficit disorder is not an actual diagnosis, but a term Eager and his colleagues created based on their research.)

“Children learn by taking risks and making mistakes. Better that they make these mistakes or observe others making them when they are young and the consequences are small than when they are adults and the consequences can be far greater,” he adds.

So what kind of risks are we talking about, exactly? Some examples of “healthy risks” include things that you probably did yourself growing up, like walking to school by yourself, playing outside unsupervised, climbing trees or using grown-up tools like hammers and saws. Remember how your parents used to leave you home alone at 8 years old, without even having a way to reach them in case of emergency? Meanwhile, your third grader learned how to work the Alexa years ago and wears a GizmoWatch so you can track their location at all times. So yeah, things look a little different these days.

What Are Some of the Benefits of Allowing Kids to Take Healthy Risks?

Dr. Mariana Brussoni, Professor and Director of the Human Early Learning Partnership at the University of British Columbia, agrees that removing healthy risks (particularly risky play) from children’s lives has profound consequences to their physical, emotional and social development. Per the development psychologist, the benefits of allowing children to engage in risky behavior includes:

  • Greater physical activity, less sedentary behavior
  • Physical literacy
  • Mental health, reduced anxiety
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Cognitive development, executive functioning skills.
  • Risk management skills

Why Are Kids Today Taking Less Risks?

Helicopter, snowplow, lawnmower…the one thing all these parenting trends have in common is churning out kids who are more risk-averse than previous generations. Which is ironic, considering the fact that the world is actually safer today than ever before (although a quick scroll through social media or glance at the news may lead parents to think otherwise).

“There has been a reduction in risky play starting in the late 1980s as we moved toward ‘intensive parenting’ where parents became much more involved in their children’s lives and curating their childhoods,” says Brussoni. With the prevalence of social media and the inevitable comparison it brings (“Little Jenny is playing the piano already… and she’s only 3!”), is it any wonder that we have been led to believe that being a good parent means being a controlling parent?

The professor notes that another big factor in the decline of healthy risk is increased screen time, which means less time spent playing outdoors. In short, we’ve stopped letting kids be kids.

So What Can We Do About It?

You want your kid to take healthy risks, but you also don’t want them to end up in the hospital. Here’s something injury and play organizations want you to know: The goal should be to keep children as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible. For example, don’t let your kid play on a playground with a broken railing, but do let them scale the monkey bars by themselves. (And remember that bike helmets are always a good idea.)

But apart from holding your breath every time your kid runs around the playground, how else can you encourage healthy risk taking in children?

“We have an online tool for parents to help them do exactly this,” says Dr. Brussoni. “The tool helps them rethink their approach, try to limit some of their fears, recognize the benefits and make a plan for change.” The tool features thoughtful questions for parents that may change how they approach things with their kids (“what were some of your favorite things to do on your own or with your friends?”) as well as interactive potential scenarios to help parents feel more comfortable with certain activities (like walking home from school alone or building a fort).  

One easy thing you can start doing today is just taking a pause before interfering with something seemingly risky that your child is doing. “Often it can be as simple as starting with counting to 17 next time they feel like saying ‘be careful,’ advises Dr. Brussoni.

And sure, it may be a little nerve-wracking seeing your kid scramble eggs over a hot stove, but think of it this way: If you want to raise independent and resilient adults, not letting your kid take a risk is actually the real risk.

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...