When Does Protecting Your Kids Become Over-Parenting?

Mother putting helmet on son's (10-11) head wrapped in bubble wrapA child changes everything. As a parent, you start seeing things from a completely different perspective. Whereas you would not have bothered before about cars driving too fast on a suburban street, now you find yourself yelling out, “Slow down, there’s kids in this neighborhood!”

Being a parent brings on a new sense of responsibility. At least one study shows that dads start spending more time at the office after having a child, working harder, hoping for a promotion. Another group of studies show that stress increases significantly for new parents, and some even suggest that, because of the added stress, parents are not much happier than their childless counterparts.

Ah, responsibility. You hold that little bundle of sleepless joy in your arms, and tell him or her, “I will never let anything happen to you. I promise. I will dedicate my life to you, and you will be the happiest person to ever walk this earth.” However, raising the smartest, happiest, and most amazing human being is a lot of work. Just keeping a child alive is huge responsibility!

The constant pressure can lead you to over-parent your child. Your desire to shield and protect him or her at all times allows the child little room for making mistakes.

Children, and people in general, learn best from experience. If a parent constantly guides a child to assure the child’s success, then the child may not know what to do when left to his or her own devices.

A common sign of over-parenting is when parents express worries in the form of instructions. For example: “Don’t fall!” How does that statement reduce the child’s chances of falling? Another one: “Be good.” Instead of helping your child succeed, these vague statements communicate mistrust in his or her abilities.

Another sign of over-parenting is when mom or dad rush to fix a child’s problems to avoid the child becoming upset. When a child loses a toy, he or she gets a new one. When a pet dies, and parents are overwhelmed with their child’s feelings of grief, moms and dads rush to the pet store for a new animal to replace their child’s best friend.

So, what’s a loving mom to do? She has a superpower to foresee danger. Should she not give warnings? And how about dad? Saving the day is what he’s all about!

Here are some suggestions on how to step back so your child can step up:

  • Keep your fears in check. Having a child feels as if your heart is walking around outside your body—all you want to do is keep it safe. Instead of expressing your fears to your child, give things a positive spin. “Wow, those are a lot of heavy plates you are holding!” builds your child’s confidence. If your child needs help, provide specific suggestions. “Hold the plates with both hands” may be enough. If you find yourself providing too much anxiety-filled feedback, you may be overdoing it.
  • Think about the realistic worst-case scenario. Fear keeps us safe. That’s why fear makes us think about the worst that could happen. But how hurt can your child really get if he or she runs too fast or swings too high? How sick can he or she become from playing with someone who has the sniffles? Give your child room to learn his or her own limits. The child may need to fall once or twice to find out.
  • Allow your child to experience upset feelings. Although you want to raise the happiest kid, your child will experience disappointment, frustration, and grief. When you experience these feelings, you don’t usually want someone to just fix it. It helps much more to be listened to and feel “felt.” Let your child tell you about his or her feelings. Connect with the child without immediate suggestions or solutions. For your child, it is more important to know that you are available than it is to know that you will fix it all. And, learning to remain calm when things aren’t going well builds the child’s stress tolerance.

Above all, remember that your child will benefit from learning to figure things out. He or she will be more careful holding an ice cream cone after dropping it once. And if it’s his or her emotional well-being that you are looking out for, keep in mind that the way in which your child is able to overcome difficulties is what will make him or her feel successful and empowered. Our children are often stronger, wiser, and more responsible than we think.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mark Loewen, LPC, therapist in Richmond, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Meggy

    September 9th, 2014 at 10:19 AM

    I know that it is hard to do but sometimes it can actually be a good thing to let your child fail at something. I am not even saying that this is eays for me to do because I know there have been times when I have stepped in and done something for them just to prevent the backlash on them… but then you look at it and think what good is this doing for them? tecahing them that someone will always be there to step in and protect then from getting hurt or making a mistake?
    We all know that’s not the truth and shouldn’t we instead let them learn a little about reality instead?

  • Ann

    September 9th, 2014 at 11:58 AM

    I agree. If you don’t allow your child to experience some frustration while they are young, they will not learn how to cope with the bigger problems that life brings as they get older. Instead, let your child express their sad, mad, and disappointed feelings. Validate them and let them know their feelings are important and that you can empathize with their disappointment. If you rush in to fix things, they never learn to recognize or deal with negative emotions or learn ways to cope or self soothe. Of course, as a parent, your role is to allow them to express themselves and based on age and temperament step in and teach them ways to handle disappointment. They will learn it is ok to have “bad” emotions and also develop confidence as they learn ways to cope. As a mom, of course I don’t want my child to ever hurt, but I see my job as giving him the skills he can use when I am no longer around to “make it better”!

  • Rita

    September 9th, 2014 at 3:08 PM

    I am a self professed helicopter mom, I hover aorund my kids and try with all my might to help them do their best and to make the right choices.
    What is so wrong with protecting my children and only wnating what is best for them? I don’t think that this is doing them any kind of disservice.
    As a matter of fact I think that this is doing a service for them because it shows them how much I sacrifice to get them the things that they need to get ahead and they appreciate the things that their parents give to them.
    The ones who are letting their children down are the ones who chalk it all up to letting the kids fail all the time- how is this teaching them anything except how to be a failure?

  • roger

    September 10th, 2014 at 3:53 AM

    We all want our kids to do well and not hurt but there does come a time when they have to learn that you as their parent cannot and should not always have to step in and do things for them.

    This kind of teaching of responsibility has to be taught form a young age and it needs to continue to be reinforced as they grow older and of course the problems do too. Do not let them think and learn that you will always be there to step in when things go wrong or when they have a problem.

    Instead teach them what to do on their own when something comes up. That may include asking someone for help if they feel like they are in over their heads but at least show them how they can first attempt it on their own.

  • Barb Gobel LISW

    September 10th, 2014 at 1:03 PM

    It is about finding a balance between protecting the child and letting the child learn from his/her mistakes. You can let the child know that you are there to help them but he/she needs to try to do it on his/her own first. You don’t let the child fail all the time. You discuss what he/she learned from this mistake and how he/she can do it differently next time.

  • Indi

    September 10th, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    We all could use a littl bit of balance here. We here about our own parents being made to walkt hree miles to school uphill in the snow and we think that our grandparents must have been terrors- and then we see how much we as parents today give our kids and we htink that we all need to step away and give them some independence. Maybe it is our own parents who had it right- giving us just enough of that freedom and yet care that made us a little better balanced than what we seem to be giving to the next generation. We do need to dial it in some but not as far back as the grandparents! There are some good aspects to all of the different styles, so now it is time to try to take the best of all of those worlds so that we are doing positive things for our children.

  • bill

    September 12th, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    I think that with time most kids are going to let you know when you are intruding maybe a little too much and they are beginning to want their space a little more. I think that both of you will be a little afraid to let go but it will be good for both of you to try to make some separation.
    If you have been good at what you do then the kids will be alright. I worry about the parents sometimes more than the kids because I honestly think that there are a lot of times when the parents have a much harder time letting go of some of that power and control.

  • Teela

    September 15th, 2014 at 4:10 AM

    i want my children to be strong and independent, and i know that there are times when i will have to let go in order to foster more of that independent spirit

  • Mark Loewen, LPC

    Mark Loewen, LPC

    September 15th, 2014 at 10:36 AM

    Thank you all for your comments! Life as a parent is a constant act of balancing. Nobody does it perfectly – we all just do the best we can. Little reminders help us to pull back, or pull closer, depending on what happens. Often it’s our emotions that make us pull closer, and our rational self that allows us to take a step back. And then we realize our kids are just fine!

  • nora

    September 16th, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    I agree with Mark. We always think that our children need just a little more than what they actually do. Most of the time you may wnat to run in and fix something only to find that hey, they did it themselves. That’s a pretty cool feeling too, because that lets you know that as a parent you have been doing something very right!

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