Do you try to protect your child from both physical and emotional pain? Do you try to shield them from sadness and disappointment? Do you try to prevent them from making mistakes or taking risks? Do you do their homework or projects for them? When your child has an argument with a friend, do you call the friend’s parents to resolve it?
If you do, you’re probably an overprotective parent.
You no doubt have compassionate, good intentions. You don’t want your child to struggle or to get hurt. You want to help and support them. You want them to feel loved and cared for (and you assume that protecting them is the best — or the only — way). Maybe you don’t even realize you’re being overprotective.
But overprotective parenting is problematic. It “discourages children from being responsible and encourages dependence,” said Lauren Feiden, Psy.D, a child clinical psychologist certified in parent-child interaction therapy who works with children, adolescents and their families on the upper east side of Manhattan.
It also limits their exposure to experiences that are essential for navigating the world, she said. Kids who are shielded from the downs of life have a difficult time with negative feelings when they become adults, said Liz Morrison, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in working with children and families in New York City.
Kids of overprotective parents learn that they can’t manage or solve their own problems, Feiden said. “[T]hey become reliant on their parents.”
They can develop anxiety, low self-esteem and even a sense of entitlement, Morrison said. “If a parent is constantly doing things for you and ensuring you are leading a perfect life, a child may begin to assume that this is the norm and have unrealistic expectations of how they should be treated forever.”
Signs of Overprotective Parenting
Below are other signs of overprotective parenting.
- You don’t let your child explore. For instance, you don’t let them explore a playground because you fear they’ll fall off the monkey bars or trip while running, Morrison said.
- You do things for your child that they can do themselves. That is, you still cut your child’s food or tie their shoes—even though they’re capable of doing this on their own and they perform these tasks at school when you’re not around, Feiden said.
- You need to know everything. You need to know what your child is doing, thinking and experiencing, and you ask questions all the time, Morrison said.
- You get overly involved in your child’s school. You might try to make sure your child has the best teachers or they’re placed in the best classes, Morrison said. You might join parental organizations to keep an eye on your child, she said.
- You rescue them from difficult or uncomfortable situations. For instance, your child is afraid to talk to new people and hides behind you, Feiden said. So you talk for them and introduce them. (This “might unknowingly reinforce the child’s behavior of avoiding speaking to new people, and the child does not learn how to manage their feelings.”)
The Opposite of Being Overprotective
If you see yourself in the above signs, these suggestions can help.
Encourage independence in small ways. “Gaining independence is essential for child development,” Feiden said. She suggested parents remind themselves that learning to navigate difficult situations helps kids develop a greater sense of self and an ability to regulate their emotions.
Feiden shared this example: If your child says they can’t tie their shoes, encourage them to try it. Praise them when they do. If your child scrapes their knee, remain calm, and let them know that it’s OK. “[E]ncourage them to get back to play, rather than focusing on the scrape itself, or telling the child not to do something because they might get a scrape again.”
In fact, kids sense their parents’ anxiety, which is why it’s important to be calm when your child encounters a stressful situation. “The calmer and the more encouraging a parent might be, the calmer the child would be,” Feiden said.
Model calm while confronting an uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking situation. Similarly, show your kids that you’re also willing to confront your fears. For instance, you might tell your child, “Sometimes I feel worried when I have to meet new people. But I’m going to be brave and take deep breaths to stay calm, and say ‘hi’ to this person,” Feiden said.
Empower your kids. When their child receives a poor grade on a paper, overprotective parents might speak to the teacher to have it changed, Morrison said. A more helpful approach is to teach your child strategies for talking to the teacher on their own. “If the parent steps in and does it for them, they will never learn how to confront an issue themselves.”
Similarly, empower your kids to resolve their conflicts with friends by talking to them about the situation and helpful strategies.
Also, let your child experience failure and loss—which, of course, are inevitable parts of life, and make us more resilient. Let them try out for a team even though you know they won’t make it, Morrison said. Maybe your child will realize the team wasn’t for them after all. Or maybe they’ll figure out how to make it next year, she said.
Naturally you want to protect your child. It’s instinctive to shield our kids from potential danger. But in shielding them from hardships, failure, rejection and other negative experiences, we actually stunt their growth. We create dependence, which only hinders them in the future.
In other words, we do the opposite of protecting them: We don’t equip them with the necessary skills or experiences to effectively traverse the rocky roads of life.