Parenting is hard no matter how you slice it. You’re responsible for raising, shaping, and disciplining a small human. The stakes are high, and the consequences are weighty.
You want your child to be healthy, safe, and successful — so it’s no wonder that you may find yourself helping a little too much or stepping in to save the day anytime something goes slightly awry.
But that incessant “helicoptering” could be hindering your kid’s growth and development. Overprotective parents mean well, but they often do more harm than good in the pursuit of perfection.
So how can you identify whether you’re an overprotective parent? What are the potential consequences? And, most importantly, how can you stop the inadvertent smothering now rather than later? Here’s what you need to know.
Overprotective parents seek to shelter their children from physical, mental, or emotional pain. They want to ensure that their kids are successful, so they might cushion the path or soften the blows of everyday life.
The problem is they often have tunnel vision in their quest to help a child achieve goals and strictly dominate decision-making on behalf of their youngster, believing they know what’s best.
It’s not a lack of empathy that drives this single-mindedness, though. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
It’s important to remember that overprotective parents — like all parents — have good intentions. They want what’s best for their child — even if it means they have to bulldoze the way or protect them from the potentially hurtful realities of the outside world.
This tendency to shelter, buffer, and manipulate can manifest in many ways. Here are just a few examples of overprotective parenting:
The overly cautious parent
A toddler who’s just learning to walk is unsteady on their feet. It can be unnerving to watch your little one waddle across a tiled floor, anticipating potential falls and boo-boos.
It’s normal for you to want to step in and facilitate. However, constantly discouraging or stopping your little one from practicing this beginner footwork can impede their progress. Furthermore, it can cause your tyke to feel mounting anxiety about their budding abilities — or lack thereof. And this goes beyond walking.
This form of overprotective parenting can come into play again and again, as your child climbs higher than ever before at the playground or demands to learn to use scissors. Stepping in to “protect” them from these healthy risks can keep them from taking on challenges and building confidence and awareness of their own abilities.
The excuse-making parent
Making excuses for a child’s poor performance on a test and demanding a re-do is another example of an overprotective tendency. Instead of allowing the child to learn from failure, the desire to give them another chance is enabling and perpetuating bad habits.
You may find yourself defending your child’s misbehavior or mistakes to friends, family, or any other critics. The idea of them failing or making mistakes may be a source of discomfort and even fear. Their failures may feel like a reflection of your own failings as a parent, so you’re always ready with a reason and explanation.
The decision-making parent
It’s important to let children experiment and try new things. If your athletic child decides they want to skip baseball this year and audition for the school play, you might be skeptical if not downright discouraging.
You may fear your child won’t be good enough in this new pursuit, or that they’re wasting an opportunity to shine in an area in which they already excel.
Along with choices about what to do, you might worry about with whom they’re doing things. You may want them to have the “right” friends. You might feel yourself validated by your child’s accomplishments and derive satisfaction seeing your child excel and fit in.
Overprotective parents fall into a fairly broad category of parenting; some may be driven by fear of injury while others may worry their kids won’t be successful without their constant attention.
Despite the varying circumstances, there are a few signs of overprotective parenting.
If you’re perpetually making big and small decisions for your child without allowing them to think through the options themselves, you may be an overprotective parent.
If your child wants to try something new (like a sport or hobby), but you insist they stick with what they know or what you want, you’re suppressing their drive, showing distrust, and assuming you know better.
It’s important to give children space to consider options on their own. Of course, we can advise them, but ultimately, we want to encourage our children to be independent thinkers with their own confident opinions.
Sheltering from failure
It can be tempting to step in and “rescue” your kid from a bad grade or injured ego. That said, having your child’s teacher on speed dial may be indicative of a bigger parenting problem.
Kids are resilient, but only if we give them the opportunity to rebound. Success is great, but kids won’t truly thrive until they learn to overcome day-to-day failures.
Overreacting to failures
If you’re enraged over the sporadic bad grade or dismayed when your child gets rejected from an opportunity, you need to take a deep breath and be like Elsa — let it go. Overreacting to occasional failures is not helping you or your child adapt and grow.
Fear of injury
If you warn your child to watch their fingers every time they shut a cabinet door or gasp when they occasionally trip over their own two feet, you’re (understandably) worried about their safety.
Certainly, nobody wants a game of tag to end in tears, but trips, spills, and scrapes are a part of childhood. As long as a child isn’t in imminent danger, you should try to bite your tongue from time to time — or the veritable training wheels may never come off.
Intense focus on achievement
If you’re so focused on your child’s accomplishments that you don’t take the time to celebrate them and enjoy the simpler moments, you (and potentially your child) are missing out.
You can schedule tutors and sign your kid up for all of the enrichment activities, but focusing exclusively on academics and measurable achievements could be detrimental to your child’s mental and emotional well-being. We need to let our kids be kids.
Extreme rewards and strict rules
Resorting to outlandish rewards to motivate children and harsh punishments to deter them is another common sign of overprotective parenting.
You want your child to be motivated by their own internal drive and excited by new experiences — not dependent on bribes and fearful of threats.
All parents make mistakes, and it’s standard practice to worry about the potential long-term effects of your decision making. But it needs to be said that there’s no one right way to parent. You have to show yourself grace and kindness in this journey and know that you’re not going to always have the right answers.
Nevertheless, identifying any overprotective tendencies now can help adjust the outcome for you and your kids, as this parenting style can have lasting negative consequences.
Perhaps most significantly, an overprotective parent can create a child who’s unprepared to deal with what life may throw their way. They’re so accustomed to having a parent make their plans and clean up their messes that they may be helpless in the face of minor challenges and major obstacles alike.
If your child feels suffocated by your very hands-on approach to parenting, they might start to lie. If they feel unable to face the pressure of unrealistic expectations or strict rules, they might twist the truth to manipulate the outcome and change your anticipated response.
Dependent, unconfident children
If your child always expects you to swoop in, they may not develop the self-esteem needed to become their own advocate.
If you do everything for them (from basic chores to finishing school projects), they may start expecting you to do other simple things that they can and should do themselves. Instead of taking on new challenges, they’re content to wait for others to handle issues.
Furthermore, a 2013 study out of the University of Mary Washington in Virginia found that children of helicopter parents were more prone to anxiety and depression in their late teens and college years.
If you stop a young child from doing things that may have negative but relatively harmless outcomes, they may become overly scared of trying new things. They may worry they’re going to get hurt or rejected and eventually shy away from experiences.
Kids who are used to having things go their way by design of their parents may have a harder time in the future when they realize that life doesn’t always work that way. They may even feel like they deserve things they haven’t earned.
Moreover, this issue is confounded if they’ve been perpetually motivated by rewards rather than self-satisfaction.
If you’re shaking your head in shame, rest assured that you’re not alone. There are loads of overprotective parents, who just like you, simply want their babies to be happy high achievers.
Identifying the problem with overprotectiveness is half the battle. You can learn from past mistakes, adjust your parenting style — while still showing ample love and support, and develop a healthier relationship with your children.
Steps you can take as an overprotective parent
- Take inspiration from others. Talk to other parents in your friend circle or community whose parenting style you admire. Ask them for their ideas and swap stories. But remember, there’s no such thing as a perfect parent, and no single style of child-rearing is best for all kids in every situation.
- Have an open conversation. Keep the lines of communication open with your child, regardless of their age. Be open to ideas and willing to hear out their wants and wishes — even if those are different from your own.
- Go easy on yourself (and your kids). Give yourself a breather. As a hovering parent, you might enjoy the relaxation a bit. If your toddler is experimenting on the playground, let it happen and allow the consequences to follow. As long as your kid is safe, you can let nature take its course. Rein in your instinct to shut things down and see how your kid reacts. They might surprise you.
- Talk to a professional. If you’re having a problem breaking away from your overprotective ways, seek out professional help. Therapy can be a great way to tap into your true motivations and find better coping mechanisms.
On the receiving end of overprotective parenting?
If you’re dealing with your own overprotective parents — whether you’re a child, teen, or adult — you, too, have some work ahead.
The first step to addressing the issue: Start a friendly conversation with your parents and express your feelings. Let them know you want to break this cycle of behavior.
You may think that your parents are controlling your choices, and you may be lashing out as a result. Positive change won’t happen until you take responsibility for your own responses, open up about your feelings, and establish some boundaries.
Outside counseling can also be immensely useful in helping you and your parents strike balance.
Finding a fitting approach to child-rearing may be a fluid process full of trial, error, and compromise.
If you identify as an overprotective parent, you may want to work on some problematic tendencies and try some new strategies — and that’s OK. Parenting is a journey, and you and your kids can and will evolve. Have faith in yourself and your children — you can do this together.