Parents love their children, they want the best for them! Unfortunately, parents may think they’re helping when really their parenting style is maladaptive and can actually hinder their child’s emotional, mental, and even physical growth. One example of a maladaptive approach to parenting is for a parent to be overprotective parents of their children. They want to ensure that their kids are successful, so they might do everything they can to make it easier for their children in everyday life. That said, some parenting styles can have tendencies that can be called overprotective and do more harm than good to the child.
While it is easy to think that protecting our children from the world’s adversities or from physical, mental, or emotional pain is a good thing, it can actually be detrimental to the development of certain skills that our children need to learn. Thus, not allowing your children to fall, to get hurt, to face certain challenges is actually being overprotective of them and can be harmful.
By recognizing what is overprotection and how it can affect a child’s development starting at an early age, parents can choose to either dial down their protectiveness or switch to a different approach that provides a safe environment for children to take risks but encourages their children to take good care of themselves.
In this article, we look at signs of overprotective parenting styles and the consequences of being an overprotected child. We also offer some tips on how to approach parenting through styles that don’t contribute to becoming an overprotective parent, and that empower children to be autonomous and secure.
What does it mean to be an overprotective parent?
There are some commonly held beliefs in society regarding what it means for a parent to be “overprotective.” Sometimes people use this phrase as shorthand for being overly worried or anxious about their child. While others see overprotective parents go beyond worrying focusing more on having an intense influence on their child’s choices in life.
Some directions and rules are necessary for child development. This is because children haven’t quite developed a way to structure themselves but need that to have space to learn and grow. Children are very in the moment. In fact, they do not have the brain capacity to have forethought or worry about the future. If the candy tastes good to them, they’ll eat a whole bunch of it without thinking about the stomach ache they may get later. Structure (e.g., directions and rules) helps to develop this part of children’s brains.
However, an overprotective parenting style may have too many directions and rules that don’t foster a sense of agency within children. Children may develop a rigid mindset and shut down their imagination. Imaginative play and storytelling help children develop critical thinking, self-sufficiency, trust in themselves, and independence at a young age.
Overprotective parents, who can also be known as “helicopter parents” or “snowplow parents,” are more than just worriers. They attempt to control their child’s lives by attempting to influence even their child’s daily actions. According to Jerry Jampolsky, MD, “Overprotection is excessive control by parents of what their children think, do, or experience.” He explains that authoritarian parents tend to believe they know what’s best for their kids, leading them to take control of their lives beyond what’s appropriate or helpful and can be best for the child themselves.
Consequently, this type of parenting leaves little room for the child to make their own decisions and live in the positive/negative consequences of that choice. They do not learn to trust themselves but instead must rely on the guidance of their parents. Too often, these children start to shut that part of themselves down to where they become adults who cannot make choices for themselves, do not trust that they would even know where to begin, and become anxious or frozen in their tracts when forced to act.
Is overprotective parenting just a phase?
Some parents may eventually see that their overprotective ways are unwarranted. If parents find that their kids respect themselves and make good decisions, parents may be able to relax more and know that their children can make good choices. Thus, parents might their children more freedom to choose than what they’ve allowed their children to have in the past. As long as parents perceive low potential risk or danger involved for their children, they can change their actions. Parents can open themselves up to the idea that their children are individuals capable of being self-sufficient and making their own decisions while maintaining their own safety.
However, overprotective parents tend to lack awareness or struggle to have the capacity to objectively understand how their parenting style can be harmful. They tend to worry about outside stimuli causing harm without realizing the very limitations or strong suggestions they are putting on their children is causing more damage than the child having a couple of scrapes or getting into a disagreement with another child. Indeed, the parent’s overprotective parenting style gets in their child’s way to make their own decisions and learn from them.
Overprotective households can have many natural consequences on a child’s emotional well-being and development, leading to a child’s distress. Therefore, it’s worth understanding the signs of an overprotective parent so that if someone close to you, or yourself, is one, then you’ll know how to help and break free of this harmful behavioral pattern.
What are the signs of an overprotective parenting style?
There are many different examples of parenting styles that can go from being healthy to being overprotective – and often, the line is crossed without even realizing it. First, it may be helpful to list together some of the different names that can be categorized as overprotective. Examples are helicopter parenting, snowplow parenting, authoritarian parenting, and rigid/boundaried parenting. These parenting styles all have high demands of their children with little to no room for negotiation of how that should look from the child’s perspective.
If you think your parenting style may be overprotective, here are some common signs and examples of overprotective parenting:
1. Parents who meticulously schedule their children’s lives.
The number one sign of an overprotective parent is having their child’s whole life scheduled out. Over-scheduling may signify to the parent that they are helping their child develop in different areas like sports, music, etc. However, it also may offer too much structure or too much stimulation for a child in one week. Children need free time to let their brains run wild with imagination. Additionally, children need downtown, often their bodies can tell them when they need to relax. You may see a child having a tantrum in the parking lot saying they don’t want to go to soccer practice. This may be a sign that the child is over-scheduled, overstimulated, and the parents are overprotective. There needs to be space in a child’s schedule to let them decide how they want to spend their time.
2. Parents who need to approve everything before their child can do anything.
Overprotective parents tend to have a parenting style that can be called authoritarian. This parenting style can range from limiting where their child can go, who their child can befriend, what their child can do with their free time, what they eat at a restaurant, how the child dresses or picking paint colors in their child’s room. The parent might put down or shame the child for any choice or hobby they disapprove of, such as the clothes the child picks out, the music they listen to, driving, drinking alcohol, playing certain sports, or going to certain places that the parent doesn’t feel is safe or appropriate. Ultimately, the child may learn over time that their opinion doesn’t matter or is wrong. As an adult, this person may not speak up for themselves and get steamrolled by those who do not have their best interest in mind.
3. Parents who want to be updated every second about where their child is.
Overprotective parents may seek to calm their worries or anxieties through their children. One way they do this is by wanting to know where their child is and who they are hanging out with to a degree of what can feel like all the time to the child. Young children, college students, and adult children are expected to check in as soon as they get somewhere or as soon as something’s done. Parents constantly call or text to ask what their child is doing or about to do. They might also ask multiple times about where their child or young adult is going or what they are about to do, following up by asking things like “are you sure?” to try and get extra information. For some children, this may indicate that their parents do not trust them. For other children, this may create enmeshment with their parents to where they become protective of their parent’s emotional state and lose sight of their own needs. These children often become ‘people pleasers’ as adults.
4. Parents who often treat their adult child as a young child.
Overprotective parents tend to communicate with their adult child like they would with a young child. The parent hasn’t changed or adapted their communication script to appropriately match the age and development of their child. Conversations focus exclusively on things that are more appropriate for younger children or teenagers rather than adults. When treated as a young child, adults might act out in what they think is adult behavior to “prove” they are not a child anymore. This acting out can be excessive spending, drinking and driving, excessive alcohol or drug use, or overworking. Adult children may also take on the identity of a young child, handicapping themselves and playing a role of a young child. These children may continue to live with their parents, may not know how to do basic domestic tasks like laundry and cooking, and struggle with money management.
5. Parents who try to make decisions about their adult child’s health care, education, check-in, or personal life.
Managing an adult’s healthcare, education, or personal decisions such as medical treatments, where to go to college, which job to take or who to date can be a sign of overprotecting parenting style. There is a difference between giving advice and making decisions for someone. While support from parents comes with critically thinking about the issue at hand and gathering all the data and helping the child come to a decision on their own, overprotective parents will often insert their opinions with no room for the child to express themselves surrounding the issue. The parents will often make comments that insinuate the child is not capable of making this decision without them and that their way is the best way.
Typical examples are monitoring a child’s weight and putting them on extreme diets, having logins to bank or college accounts, telling a child what to eat when the child has not asked for advice, being critical of when the child should exercise, and criticizing how much money the child is spending or even how often they go out with friends, especially when the child is out of the home and older.
6. Highly intrusive parents
Parental intrusion can be a strong overprotective behavior sign, especially if the child’s boundaries are not respected. That includes stalking on the child’s social media or even hacking into their online accounts. It’s also common signs of overprotective parenting to show up unannounced or follow the child without consent. The parent may monitor the parent’s phone calls, giving them no privacy. Parents may feel entitled to cross boundaries or be intrusive to their child’s private space due to the developmental stage or age of the child. An example of crossing boundaries might be to call one of the child’s friends to ask about their new relationship instead of asking their own child about the child’s new relationship.
Children are born innocent. Unless they have given reason for their parents to cross boundaries or not give privacy, the child needs some sense of agency over their life without having to worry that their parents will be listening in or showing up unwarranted. If there is fear that the child will harm themselves because they do not know to not stick their finger in an outlet, for instance, then be more protective of the child. However, most children need alone time where they can be free of any pressures from their parents to think and explore on their own. Yes, even toddlers! An appropriate boundary for a toddler might be to give them alone time but within an enclosed space with safe toys, whereas a pre-teen may get to stay home alone while you run a few quick errands.
7. Parents who are hyper-vigilant about safety and constantly worry.
It is normal to worry about your child’s safety! However, if you are constantly worrying about your child’s safety, and then acting on these worries, your child might be off-put by this. Overprotective parenting behavior could cause issues in your relationship with your child, while also creating problems for the child.
Overprotective parents can look like parents who embody a style that consists of constantly warning you about the danger of strangers, drugs, alcohol, sex, driving, unsafe neighborhoods, and so on. Oftentimes, the parent is putting their own anxieties of safety onto their child. Playdates, sleepovers, and school trips can even be forbidden as they want to lower risk-taking behaviors for their child or the possibility that outsiders may hurt their children. These parents are essentially living out of fear and may influence the child to view the world as a scary place. As an adult, children of constant worriers and overprotective parents might become worriers themselves. They might experience high levels of anxiety attacks or get stuck in their head about what they just said to a friend, struggling to live in the moment.
There are certainly similarities in the different overprotective parenting styles. As you can see, each parenting style also has some unique characteristics and degrees of control over the kid’s life. For example, some parents may only want you to date someone who is the same race as you, whereas others may not care about who you date but make you wash your hands three times before you go on the date.
If you found yourself saying “I do that” to any of these seven overprotective parenting methods, it is recommended to talk with a professional. Research shows that children with overprotective parents suffer in their development. Get help exploring how you came to having the overprotective parenting methods that you do. You can also explore alternative methods of parenting styles that may work better for you than being an overprotective parent.
What causes overprocetive parenting?
It’s healthy for children to have some sense of rules and guidance as they grow into adolescents and young adulthood. However, there is a difference in guidance and strict rules that don’t allow for the child to figure out who they are. When parents instill rules that are too rigid or too restrictive, there can be problematic issues for their children.
It’s important to remember that overprotective parents want to keep their kids safe and feel that what they are doing is good parenting. Indeed, some parents may fear that by loosening the rules that something terrible will happen to their kids! It is a natural instinct for parents to protect their children from any imminent danger or future pain they may encounter in their journey. Yet, some pain and danger while in the safety of the parent’s home is a good thing for children. They learn their own limits and boundaries.
If children do not have the freedom to explore out of their parent’s fear for their safety, they will only know their parents’ limits and boundaries, not their own. While it could work for the children to live through their parent’s set of rules and regulations for the rest of their life, typically a child will be better off if they are able to lean into their own set of rules and boundaries as they get older. In fact, sometimes the child of an overprotective parent becomes an overprotective parent because they do not know any other way of parenting or existing. They are bound tightly by their own parent’s expectations, that they cannot think or act in ways that may be fitting for them or their children.
It has been found that overprotective parents tend to have experienced previous trauma or loss, which can make them afraid of unfortunate experiences happening to their child. Due to having experienced hurt themselves, a parent who is overprotective might also have trust issues with the world outside of the family system. They also may not have fully processed their trauma and the symptoms that come from it (e.g., anxiety, constant fear or worry, need for control), so they project their own trauma and its symptoms onto their children.
Overprotecting parents might be struggling with codependency issues. Codependency can emerge in many ways, especially when a parent needs the child to “rescue” them from their problems. An example of a codependent relationship could look like a child forgoing developmentally healthy experiences, such as having adventures or socializing with their peers, as to not make their parent sad or anxious. This pattern of interaction may get passed down to the next generation where the once child who didn’t get to experience healthy friendships growing up, now cannot handle their own child going out of the home and needs them to bring them comfort and safety.
It is essential to acknowledge that overprotective parents often raise overprotected kids who grew up to parent their children in the same way. This can become a multi-generational cycle where that parenting style is passed down through a family system.
Consequences of overprotective parenting on child’s development.
Overprotective parenting can cause children to develop feelings of frustration and alienation, as they don’t get the necessary space and freedom to develop useful and adaptive social skills. This type of parenting also can prevent kids from having essential opportunities that help them build independence, such as dating or spending time alone at home without parents.
Unfortunately, there is no “right” way to parent, but there are different parenting styles. Forming healthy boundaries can help you raise a child without being too strict or allowing them to be raised without appropriate parental supervision. What can also be helpful to keep in mind is that children are unique and different children may benefit from having more rules while others might benefit more from having fewer guidelines on how to behave.
Is it harmful to be overly-protective of your children?
It certainly can cause harm to children if their parents are overly protective of them. While a child most likely will not experience physical harm from overprotective parenting methods, they most likely will not reach their highest potential or have emotional issues as they get older. It is helpful that overprotective parents have an awareness of how their parenting style might be affecting their children. If possible, an openness to adapting their parenting style could take place.
Parents using parental overprotection can even be emotionally manipulative and say such things as telling their children that they’ll hurt themselves if the child doesn’t do as they say. That can lead young adults to give up on their dreams as they focus on their parents’ decisions instead of their well-being, their own goals, or drives. This lack of self-efficacy and living for themselves can lead to depression or anxiety. Overprotective parenting may also have long-term effects on children’s physical health depending on what type of protection the parents put in place (e.g., having an eight-year-old on a strict diet or not taking a child to get medical care when it was necessary).
If you do think of yourself as an overprotective parent, or to use the common terms helicopter parent or snowplow parent, it could be beneficial to see a mental health professional. If you are interested in exploring what in your life may have led you to be the type of parent that you are or if your child is starting to push back on your boundaries and rigidity, you may need an outside perspective to help you delineate what is healthy and what is overprotective. Ideally, you and a therapist can work together to identify different ways to parent that could work better for you and be more beneficial to your child.
How can being an overprotective parent affect your child’s mental health at an early age?
If you’re a parent, the last thing that you want to do is have your kids feeling as if they can’t go on playdates or do what other children are allowed to do. It can make it challenging for your children to develop healthy relationships in their life. A child who isn’t allowed much freedom might feel like their parents don’t trust them to behave appropriately and cause the said child to develop insecurities in themselves.
How can being an overprotective parent affect your child after they grow up and become adults?
Strict rules and expectations imposed upon a young kid by overprotective parents can affect their development after they have grown into young adulthood. When you’re constantly being told no, it may take its toll on your confidence and self-esteem. Indeed, restricting your child’s friends or child’s activities can make him feel like they’re not good enough to make their own judgments. This could lead to the person having low self-esteem. Your child might even have a hard time making decisions in the future because the overprotective parenting style consistently had another person, their parent, making their decisions for them.
The consequences of overprotective parenting on your child’s mental health
The impact of authoritarian parenting on your kids is not something to take lightly. Indeed, here are some common health issues that children and adults can experience who have overprotective parents.
- Low self-esteem and self-worth. Having low self-esteem can cause you to feel like you’re not good enough and never will be.
- Anxiety and depression. Kids who grow up being overly protected tend to have a hard time coping with their emotions and can develop depressive symptoms.
- Eating disorders. Some children who have helicopter parents can go on to develop eating disorder symptoms. This is because they might feel like they need to be perfect and want to control their diet.
- Drug, alcohol, and tobacco addiction. Kids placed in a situation where they feel like they have no freedom tend to seek attention from peers by developing drug habits or heavy drinking. These behaviors can affect their physical health as well.
- Affective disorders. Study shows how children with overprotective parents tend to be more at risk of developing mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
- Injured ego. Your child might not know how to deal with challenging situations and feel like he can’t do anything without your help.
- Lack of communication. Whether it’s about friends, relationships, or even family issues such as divorce, your kids may struggle to communicate with their peers and develop unhealthy coping mechanisms due to being unable to effectively communicate.
- Self-doubting. Kids who grew up with helicopter parents tend to feel wrong about anything they do, and they wonder if they did something wrong. That is a consequence of growing up surrounded and protected from all harm on the outside and having most decisions being made for you rather than by you.
- People-pleasing tendencies. Children who grew up with helicopter parents might develop the habit of people-pleasing as an adult. They tend to have a hard time saying no and might think poorly of themselves if they receive criticism.
- Insecurity. Kids who grow up having been told what to do might not be able to make decisions for themselves will struggle to take risks as an adult because they fear and don’t believe in themselves and their abilities.
- Anger issues. Anger that isn’t processed and communicated effectively can lead to distorted thoughts, poor communication, and interpersonal problems. Children with overprotective parents tend to experience this issue throughout their adult life.
Is overprotective parenting bad for your child’s physical health?
Overprotective parents can also affect their child’s physical health. Research shows that children of overprotective parents are more likely to suffer from asthma and allergies if their parents are only starting to become overprotective at an older age. Future health issues could include obesity, diabetes, or heart conditions.
What are ways that I can avoid being an overprotective parent?
You can start thinking about the reasons why you’re overprotective of your children and try to be able to be in a state of mind to explore those reasons objectively. For example, if you feel that you can’t trust others around your child, try spending more time with other people who might be willing to babysit or letting them have play dates with friends at your house.
Remember that your children have the right to make their own decisions, that these behaviors can be beneficial. It can be useful to think about how your kids don’t always expect them to follow in your footsteps. It is also okay for your children to sometimes not succeed in what they’re attempting and commit mistakes. Let them try different things, even if you might not be too keen on some of them yourself. If they find something that they love doing, it’s likely to open up a whole new world of new experiences and possibilities for them.
As a parent, it is helpful to be honest, and upfront with your children. This means letting them see your point of view and telling them what you truly want for yourself or them, without actually choosing for them.
If you’re a parent who is experiencing parental-related anxiety, it can help to talk with a professional that can give you personalized exercises and tricks to help you explore those issues. They can also help you learn how to manage your anxiety better without allowing it to manage you.
How do I talk to my overprotective parents, and what strategies can I use?
When you feel like things are getting out of hand, take a step back and breathe. Think about how important the issue is to your parents and if it’s worth fighting with them over.
As you might feel weighed down by their overprotectiveness and constantly frustrated at how they’re treating you, it is essential to establish strategies to help you solve problems with your parents and maintain a healthy environment.
There are several strategies that family therapists know of that could help you deal with overprotective parents. Here are some to try:
- Choosing your battles wisely. Sometimes, trying to stand up for yourself could lead to bigger problems than what you were dealing with initially. If this is the case, it may be best to go along with their wishes instead of making them angry or forcing them to argue with you.
- Beating around the bush. Rather than telling your parents that they’re too controlling, try saying something like, “I understand where you’re coming from, but I feel that there are some things I need to do and experiment on my own.” This way, they’ll see that you’re still respecting their opinions but don’t feel like you have to do everything they say.
- Be honest and speak kindly. This means letting them see your point of view and telling them what you truly want for yourself.
- Setting healthy boundaries. This means letting your parents know what’s okay and what isn’t when it comes to them influencing your life. For example, if they’re trying to tell them that you can’t go on a night out with friends, tell them that while they’re welcome to come along, you would appreciate it if they respected your decision.
- Don’t argue with them right away. This will only make the situation worse and cause unnecessary conflict between you both. Rather than getting into an argument about who is right or wrong, let them know that their opinions matter to you as much as yours do. It is alright to have different views.
- Whatever you do, don’t ever let them guilt trip you into doing what they want. If they say things like, “We’re just trying to keep you safe,” or “we’re only looking out for your best interests,” remind them that you’re old enough to make your own decisions and will take into consideration their opinion. Don’t be harsh on yourself for not always following your parents’ wishes as it can lead to feelings of low self-esteem.
- Put yourself in their shoes. Sometimes it can be helpful to think about how our children would want to be treated if the situation was reversed. If you can, try to see it from their side before you act on what feelings you might be having.
- If you know that your parents will say no to something, try asking them for alternatives instead of trying to convince them to say yes.
Overprotection is a problem in parenting that can have many severe effects on a child’s life. Parents are advised to avoid overprotecting their children, as it can have negative mental and physical health consequences.
If you are an overprotective parent, one option for approaching this topic is to try to talk with your children about the problem and show examples illustrating your point. You should avoid pressuring or forcing your children into doing something. Teach them everything they need to know for their age, but don’t decide everything for your kids.
The best thing is to give children independence, but not too much. Parents should also teach their kids enough about what’s happening in the world, so they aren’t entirely ignorant about current events and activities taking place. This way, they can make informed decisions when approaching problems or issues in life, instead of only doing what parents ask them to do.
If you are struggling with overprotective parenting, or if you are a parent and trying to stop being overprotective, contact us. We can provide you with the skills and techniques that will help you overcome these issues with our family therapy in Philadelphia or child therapy in Philadelphia.
We also offer online family therapy for those who do not live in Philadelphia, PA or are not able to travel to an office setting to have their sessions in person.