Bubble-Wrapping Our Children

The Perils of Overprotective Parenting

Michael Ungar

Ungar Parenting PictureI’m sure Shyam wasn’t thinking about the harm she was causing her 8-year-old daughter, Marian, when she demanded her daughter’s school put an extra crossing guard closer to their home. Nor did she doubt herself when she insisted that children be barred from bringing oranges to school because Marian developed a minor rash every time she ate one. At home, Marian was closely monitored and never allowed to take risks: no sleepovers, no playing on the trampoline with friends, no walking to the corner store (less than a block away) by herself.

Shyam might sound extreme in her parenting, but among the families that come to therapy these days, she’s far from an outlier. While not all overprotective parents are as extreme in their behaviors as Shyam (indeed, few experience themselves as being obsessive at all), many middle-class families are struggling to decide how much protection is the right amount, even when their children are showing signs of anxiety and rebellion as a result. Whether these families are my clients or my neighbors, overprotective parenting appears to have become the rule, rather than the exception, in today’s world.

I’ll be the first to admit that I found it difficult not to roll my eyes and tell Shyam to lighten up. I wanted to share stories about my own upbringing, which included healthy doses of benign neglect by a mother who told me to go outside and play and not come back until I was hungry, or badly injured.

Or I could’ve explained to Shyam that there’s now consensus among social scientists that children across the United States, Canada, Australia, England, and other high-income countries have never been safer. Even the respected epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recently published a report showing that the real risks to our children aren’t abductions by strangers or being murdered, but much more commonplace problems like bullying and obesity. Believe it or not, physical fighting, cigarette use, and even sexual activity among teens are all decreasing. And the police chiefs of Canada, much like police chiefs in other countries, tell us that crime in our communities is down, and that the person most likely to assault a child sexually is still, by far, a member of the child’s own family.

This new normal is a growing pattern of overprotection that I’ve seen emerging as one of the thorniest clinical issues for therapists because it can look so reasonable. If we therapists have children too (I have two older teens), we may find ourselves empathizing and afraid to admit that we’re just as crazy when it comes to our own kids. Statistics be damned! We’re not going to let anything bad happen to our child.

Where Shyam is a little different from other parents is that, as a consequence of her relentless efforts to protect her daughter and ensure her success at every activity, Miriam began to experience severe anxiety before school each day and show the early signs of anorexia. Indeed, the growing number of young adults who aren’t allowed responsibilities in life and who are presenting with anxiety disorders is a warning sign that many parents have lost their way. As a consultant to Shyam’s case, I knew that her fears needed to be challenged, albeit gently, and that Marian needed much more control over the decisions that affected her. The question was how could we, as the family’s clinical team, help Shyam and Marian find a new normal.

Over years of working with parents to help undo the bubble wrap around their children, I’ve found four questions to be useful. Rather than insisting that parents change their behavior and supervise their children less, or trying to persuade them that the world really is a safer place today, I focus on how they can give their kids opportunities to experience the manageable amounts of risk and responsibility needed for success. I ask them:

  1. When you were growing up and were about the same age as your child, what risks did you take and what responsibilities did you have?

  2. What did you learn from those experiences?

  3. Later in life, how helpful were those lessons?

  4. How will your child learn the same life lessons?

The questions, especially the fourth one, shift the focus of the clinical work from trying to get parents to stop overprotecting to doing what’s positive for their children, which is providing them with opportunities to experience what I call the risk-taker’s advantage.

That advantage comes when children are given the chance to experience just enough stress to demand their full attention, but not so much that it overwhelms them. These manageable experiences can come in two forms---taking risks and assuming responsibility---which often go hand in hand.

Topic: Parenting | Anxiety/Depression | Children/Adolescents

Tags: anorexia | anxiety disorder | anxiety disorders | bullying | HEAL | kids | neglect | parents | signs of anxiety | SPECT | TED | teens | therapist | therapists

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Monday, September 22, 2014 4:40:53 PM | posted by Dr.Charlotte
When I had my first child at age 20, older women were constantly telling me how to raise my children (usually they were complete strangers to me). I felt very controlled, paranoid, and resentful, biting my tongue to stop myself from telling them to mind their own business. I now know they only wanted me to reassure them that I was doing a good job and that I appreciated their concern. However, with such resentment, I did not think they deserved any reassurance. I was not accountable to anyone unless I was obviously neglecting or abusing my child. There is still too much meddling going on, which is a reflection of the overprotection of children in general. People need to trust their children's intelligence and judgement and teach them self-reliance and self-direction. (let them make a few mistakes). Talk to them, explain situations and tell them that you trust them to do what is right.

Friday, September 19, 2014 3:18:40 PM | posted by Ricia
Do Therapists "OverProtect" when they force themselves (as you describe in your excellent piece) to hold back from rolling their eyes when they listen to OverProtective Parents? Just askin'....