July 1, 2017 Carol Miller

The Most Dangerous Parenting Practice – The Overprotected Kid

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Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Remember being in junior high and high school when all the cool kids had the ability to spread their wings and go out where and whenever they wanted? I never understood why my mom had to control my life to the extent that she did.

I wasn’t allowed to hang out with friends unless it was for a short time and mom knew exactly where I was going and what we would be doing. I couldn’t ride the city bus because it was “too dirty”; I couldn’t take taxis because “taxi drivers could kidnap me” along with other extreme rationales to keep me at home, within eyeshot.

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch my 13-year-old niece play in a league basketball game. With the freshly polished court, the paid referees, digital scoreboard, and live buzzers, I couldn’t help but think how things had changed from when I was a kid playing pickup games on local playgrounds with torn nets and a blacktop court.

The kids were listening to their coach and her instructions, making small talk with the refs, and playing with learned and developed skills. One of the kids was accidentally elbowed in the stomach, as is expected in a close contact sport, and as several kids had been during the game. Superficially hurt, the girl stopped the game and used her hand and covered her face in tears. A frantic mother quickly emerged from the stands rushing the court, armed with sweatshirts and water. She looked reassuringly to the crowd of stunned parents and in a significant gesture, pulled her daughter into her arms. The girl shook her mother away in embarrassment. She immediately pulled herself together, and her face quickly went from contorting in pain to blushing in humiliation.

As parents, we have an instinctive desire to protect our kids. At some point we need to ask ourselves, are we doing too much for them, are we protecting them to the point of overkill that is damaging our kids?

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When do our actions cross the line from offering security and support to embarrassing them in front of their entire basketball team? The overbearing nature of this particular mother’s actions was apparent in her actions from the lack of pause to the unusual choice of items she brought to soothe her daughter, whose minor injury doubtfully never made her either thirsty or cold. However, we as parents are all guilty of mild and extreme acts of over-protecting and over-parenting that can be extremely damaging to a child’s development.

When we assume our children need more emotional support than actual, we are undermining their abilities and hurting their confidence.

Children who are deprived of playful stress grow into adults that freeze when faced with stressful situations, whereas, children exposed to stress during childhood, have the ability to navigate stressful situations without freezing up…

I have a hypothesis that if parents overprotect children, they will either:

  1. Become obsessed with breaking the rules and own up to it when confronted or
  2. Become obsessed with breaking the rules and covering up their paths in every sneaky way possible or
  3. Become extremely introverted; shy, obedient, and passive

I leaned more towards the rule-breaking side (although I was never one to cover my tracks; if asked I would own up to what and I did it). I was and am introverted and struggle with speaking up and being myself in public and I have for most of my life. I just didn’t know how to form human relationships correctly.  Proper manners were never properly taught, and I learned later in life the value of them.

Since I grew up with my overprotective parents, I drove the need for self-expression into sports, while my sibling gravitated to the arts. We learned to hide our emotions and ourselves channeling them into developing skills that would be used throughout our lives.

We hid any problems or issues. Thus we hid any ability to show vulnerability or connect with people on a deeper level.

Psychology teaches us that there are two types of stress:

  1. Short-term/acute stress – the response to a frightening, competitive, or dangerous stimulus that is completely resolved within seconds or minutes
  2. Sustained/chronic stress.

Everyone agrees that chronic stress is terrible. Abuses, neglect, sensory deprivation, excessive worry, regular exposure to violence are forms of chronic stress. Countless research studies confirm that a chronically stressful childhood often leads to adults with anxiety, depression, and other mood and adjustment disorders and worse. I doubt you will find anyone who does not agree that children should be protected from chronic stress.

Acute stress is a short burst of stress, and then it’s over with quickly.

Physical play involves some level of acute stress. Sports, video games, competitions, and contests are potent inducers of acute stress.

This type of stress can truly be enjoyable. Clinical evidence is accumulating that acute stress is not just fun, but beneficial, and even necessary for childhood development.

Children who are deprived of playful stress grow into adults that freeze when faced with stressful situations, whereas, children exposed to this stress during childhood, have the ability to navigate stressful situations.

Light acute stress helps kids learn proper fear responses as adults. They take the stress in stride, deal with it and move on.

Exposure to acute mild stress is beneficial for brain development, social skills, behaviors, and even intelligence. Studies have shown that acute stress, unlike chronic stress, is good for the immune system. Bottom line research is showing that safe, and a controlled amount of acute stress is good for us, especially kids. Secure stress is a way to relieving a “stress valve” that lowers levels of chronic stress over the long term. Thus the term “blowing off steam” does have benefit.

Helicopter or overbearing parents are not doing their children any favors.

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Parents who seek to shield their children from all forms of adversity, physical labor, conflict, arguments on the playground, games, and competitions with winners and losers, getting minor bumps and bruises, and even periodically experiencing fear, are all forms of acute stress that we learn from in development. This is hurting their child’s development.

By falling off of a piece of playground equipment, kids learn a range of lessons that can’t be taught any other way.

If children are protected from all possible dangers when the stakes are minimal, how will they pilot risk-taking when they are older, and the stakes are greater?

We should try to protect our kids from chronic stress. Depriving them of beneficial forms of safe stress may leave them unable to deal with stress as adults. As parents, we often fall short on how to recognize how capable our children really are.

Doing too much for our kids instructs them to be dependent.  Growing up is a series of weaning occurrences for children.

A parent should be a protected base from which a kid can explore the world. At the park, we need to allow them to be independent while being close by to offer support and guide them on their own adventure. We can be nearby when necessary, and we need to step aside when they do not. Taking this approach allows our children to experience the world for themselves.

As a parent, it can be difficult to let our kids explore and develop their autonomy. This has more to do with us, as parents, than with our children. As parents, it is vital to be aware of when we are using our children to fulfill our own needs. How much of the desire to protect them come from them versus how much does it come from our need to act a protector? How often are the hugs we give them to provide affection versus how often are these to get affection from our kids?

Our kids need the freedom to spread their wings, to see and experience the world in their own way, with some parental guidance.

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being content, and finding themselves. As parents, we can offer love, safety, support, guidance, and solid security from which our kids can confidently embark on and independently experience the world.

This brings us to the second mistake parents should be keenly aware of – judging our kids. If our children are fearful of their parents judging them, they will be hesitant to share their lives with us. Parents who lose the ability to be a support mechanism for their children fail to understand why their children feel depressed, lonely, or frustrated. Why are they having a difficult time making friends?

Kids who are fearful to tell parents their troubles or anything that may worry a parent, like taking the bus to the mall and having fun with friends hanging out at the park, or grabbing an Uber to visit a local amusement park with their buddies, suffer unneeded guilt and potentially worse.

As a result, kids may become very private and closed-in, never sharing their real feelings and slowly harbor resentment that they cannot communicate with their parents. This has the potential to have long-lasting development hardships and handicapped in forming genuine, honest and profound relationships. Open and honest communication, where our children feel safe to tell us anything, is critical. Kids need to be able to spread their wings, experience acute stress as they grow and know that unconditional support and love is always available at home, regardless of the circumstances.

How many times have you heard friends say about their parents, “Why did they control me so much when I was leaving for college, and they could not control me at all then?” And be told that the answer was – “Because I can still control you now.”

The validation of good parenting is watching our children thriving, showing interest, learning skills, being content, and finding themselves

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As difficult as it is for parents to let go, it’s hard for them to grasp the idea that the cute baby, who you used to dress up in princess’s outfits and braids a short while ago, has suddenly become this obnoxious teenager. He or she is a few short years away from becoming an adult. They will soon be a young adult who comes home and won’t interact with you since they feel stifled and controlled.

Parents need to think about their kids and how this interaction is harming them and the overall relationship.

Remember that they are their individuals with their own lives and shielding them from the “real world” right now won’t do them any good because they will experience the world, despite your best intentions to shield them. Kids need to experience acute stress to grow.

Exposure to acute mild stress is beneficial for brain development, social skills, behaviors, and intelligence; kids need these experiences to thrive and grow and to develop into well-rounded children who become well-adjusted adults.

Our offspring ought to have every opportunity to reach their full potential. As parents, we have an obligation to give them a helping hand when needed while allowing them to spread their wings and grow. They need to explore and be exposed to many opportunities, to develop skills that will engage and benefit them throughout life.

As parents, we want to encourage our children’s interests, curiosity, and natural gifts, to not be afraid to be wrong, to take calculated risks – if children are not prepared to be incorrect, they’ll never come up with anything original or creative or ever take a risk.