“Life is full of ups and downs. How are children supposed to learn to deal with disappointment if we never give them the chance?”
– Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., family therapist & author
(Hunt, 2010, p. 48)
It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the surest ways to raise a damaged child who struggles in life is to protect them too much. Unfortunately, overprotective parenting has become like a plague sweeping over America and many other modern societies in resent years, with often disastrous results.
Why Overprotective Parenting Damages Kids
First and foremost, overprotection is actually a form of developmental neglect that prevents a child from developing the skills needed to successfully navigate life. In fact, parents who overprotect their child can do them more damage over the long run than is done by many cases of outright abuse. Behavioral neuroscientist Sergio M. Pells comments that protecting kids too much “simply defrays those costs to later, when those same children will have difficulty in dealing with an unpredictable, complex world.” (Wenner, 2009, p. 29) Children must learn how to cope with setbacks, and this learning only comes through practice and experience.
Overprotective parents hinder a child’s growth and development. Psychologist Sheldon Kopp tells the story of a boy who helped a butterfly escape from its cocoon. The butterfly got out, but immediately fell to the ground unable to fly. They boys father then explained that the struggle to immerge from its sticky cocoon was precisely what was needed to strengthen the butterfly’s wings, enabling it to fly. By trying to help the butterfly too much, he actually ended up jeopardizing the butterfly’s ability to survive. (Kopp, 1985, p. 190)
No matter how well-intentioned their efforts may be, they inevitably end up stifling a child’s natural maturation. They keep a child from exploring in the woods because they’re afraid they might hurt themselves. They avoid situations in which another child might upset them. They hinder a child’s ability to try new things (“she’d be too scared”). They manage a child’s affairs to ensure that things go smoothly. Such behaviors may seem minor and insignificant at the time, but throughout the course of childhood it amounts to a mountain of experiences that a child has been protected from; experiences that would normally be a valuable part of development. Protective environments tend to go hand in hand with oppressive environments.
Overprotection can lead to child anxiety problems, since parents tend to transfer their own anxiety about what a child might experience to their kids. Children pick up on this, and learn to be anxious about life themselves. Overprotective parenting also promotes a number of problematic ideas and a flawed attitude towards adversity. So when children do experience pain, they tend to react to it in a much more unhealthy way . . . taking it personally and considering it an egregious injustice that they should ever be made to suffer.
The end result is a child with a diminished ability to navigate the world. Someone who has had little practice in working through problems on their own. Someone who has almost no experience recovering from stress. Someone with less developed social and emotional skills coupled with high levels of anxiety that will diminish their ability to cope. It’s the exact same outcome chronic abuse might create, only we reached it through the opposite extreme.
“We want to protect our kids from all bad feelings, but struggle and suffering are part of life and children need to learn to manage these emotions.”
– Michael Thompson, Ph.D. (2012, p. 118)
Children need practice dealing with adversity, disappointment, and reasonable degrees of stress. The best time for them to get this practice is during childhood (a time when such learning is meant to take place), and when there are loving caretakers around who are always ready with a shoulder to cry on. When parents limit a child’s opportunity to experience and work through these unpleasant situations, it creates a number of problems.
We recognize how hard it can be for parents to heed this advice and take a step back. Our children are our babies, and when they experience pain, so do we. But it is crucial parents understand that our role is not to prevent pain, but to comfort it. Not to dictate or manage a child’s experiences, but be ready with guidance when necessary. As psychologist Lori Gottlieb states, “We can try to protect them from nasty classmates and bad grades and all kinds of rejection and their own limitations, but eventually they will bump up against these things anyway. In fact, by trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood, we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up. Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do – and some letting go.” (Gottlieb, 2011, p. 78) The following pages offer information on how you can strike the right balance between a parent’s love and protection and allowing children the freedom to explore and experience pain that all children need in order to develop properly.