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Causes, Signs and Effects of Overprotective Parents

Is overprotective parenting harmful for children? Find out what overprotective parents are, their characteristics, and their effects on child development.

What Are Overprotective Parents

Overprotective parents show guarding behavior that is excessive considering the child’s developmental stage and the actual risk level in their environment.

Overprotective parents’ single-minded focus is to keep their children safe, not only physically but also emotionally.

These parents obsess with their children’s physical safety, even though they usually live in a relatively safe environment. The levels of protection exceeds the much lower level of actual risk.

They are also preoccupied with preserving their kids’ emotional wellness by helping them remove all obstacles and cushion the blow of everyday life.

Girl clings onto overprotective mother

Why Are Parents Overprotective

Some parents are overprotective because they want to do everything within their power to safeguard their children from harms, and to help them succeed in life.

This intensive parenting approach is often chosen by parents in a loving but misguided attempt to improve their child’s outcome.

Parents are instinctively protective. They love and care about their children, and want to raise them to be healthy, happy, and successful. They want to protect their kids’ wellbeing by preventing illnesses, hurtful feelings, and failure.

But when a mom or dad helps a little too much, steps in to save the day every time something goes slightly awry, or shields the child from all the negativities of the world, they become overprotective parents.

What Are The Causes of Overprotective Parenting

Parental Anxiety

Overprotective parents are often anxious parents who are preoccupied with dangers. Parents who suffer from anxiety or panic disorder are prone to show overparenting behavior​1​.

Hyperbolic News Media

Overprotection exists in every generation. However, there is a trend toward intensive parenting in recent years. In particular, the Millennials are infamous for having overprotective helicopter parents.

We are living in an era where we are constantly bombarded by information. The prevalence of internet and smart phone usage means media needs to use creative ways to compete for our attention.

Sensational news does the job.

Hyperbolic news media leads parents to believe that the world around them is far more dangerous than it actually is​2​. It makes every assault against a child seem like a personal threat.

Therefore, even though our society is on the whole safer than any previous generation in history, it doesn’t feel that way.

Perceived Child Vulnerability

Parents of children with chronic illness​3​ or physical disabilities​4​ often exhibit overprotective and controlling behavior. These parents, especially the mothers, believe that their children are more vulnerable or susceptible, and require more protection.

Parental Post-Traumatic Symptoms After Disaster

Overprotection can arise following natural or man-made disasters, especially if the parent develops Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)​5​.

For example, if a family has escaped their burning home in a large fire, the parents may develop fear of future fires and form overprotective behavior.

man puts sleeping infant on shoulder

Is It Good To Be Overprotective

Having protective parents is good for infant survival. It is also beneficial if the living experience contains high risks. But in ordinary home free of serious conditions, focusing exclusively on protection without flexibility threatens children’s development​6​.

Research shows that when parents protect their children from an extreme community, such as urban environments where gun-related violence, gangs, and drugs are common, the family functioning is better.

Parents’ brains are wired to protect their offspring. But when taken to the extremes and the level of risks do not match the extend of protection, overprotection will do more harm than good.

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What Are The Signs Of Overprotective Parents

Overprotective parenting can take many forms. Here are some signs of overprotective parents.

Saves the Day… Every Day

Of course, no one wants to see their children fail. But overprotective parents cannot stand to let their children experience any failure or disappointments. They swoop in to save the day every time their children face the slightest challenge.

  • They clean their kid’s messy room and pick up everything after them.
  • They pack their kid’s backpack every night to make sure nothing is forgotten.
  • They do their kid’s homework or science projects to ensure they will get A’s.
  • They step in and rescue their kid from a poor grade or injured ego.
  • They would do anything to keep their child from failure, even if it means breaking the rules (or laws).

Micromanagement

Overprotective parents are anxious about their kids’ every move. So they hover and control their children’s actions and environments. They rule over every aspect of their kids’ lives. Examples of overprotective micromanaging include:

  • They decide what extracurricular activities their child will take on because you know better.
  • They don’t allow their child to veer off and pursue interests they deem risky.
  • They plan their child’s daily schedule and supervise all activities.
  • They make all decisions for the child without allowing them to think through the options themselves.
  • They rarely take the child’s perspective or preference into consideration.
  • They only let their child hang out with the “right” friends.

Hypersensitive and Reactive

Overprotective parents are hypersensitive and they often overreact to anything related to their children.

  • They are overly cautious over activities their child engages in.
  • They remind their child about safety and danger constantly.
  • They complain about their child’s bad grade and fight with the school to change it.
  • They are enraged and demand a review when their child is rejected from an opportunity.
  • They intervene if their child is not receiving the special treatment they feel entitled to.
  • They go overboard with consolation when their child fails.

What are the effects of overprotective parents

There are many reasons parents shouldn’t be overprotective. The most notable one is that it hurts their children’s growth and development into well-adjusted, independent adults. Here are the different ways this harm manifests.

boy cries over a bowl of food under overprotective parenting

Worry and Anxiety

Worry is a recurrent, dysfunctional and rigid form of negative thinking that is often a primary sign of generalized anxiety disorder. Studies have consistently found that overprotected children are more prone to worry and anxiety​7​.

Overprotective parents may overparent their child because of their own bias towards threats, increased the perception of danger, and elevated sensitivity to their child’s distress. The parents’ constantly high stress levels remind their children of danger and cause anxiety in them​8​.

Lack of Coping Skills

Parental overprotection can undermine a child’s development of independent coping skills.

To learn effective coping strategies, children must learn to adapt to difficult situations.

Some exposure to risks and challenging experiences allow children’s coping mechanisms to mature​9​. These are resilient life skills that will weather future unhappiness, adversities, failures and heartbreaks.

However, overprotected children are not afforded those opportunities. They are put in a bubble away from the real world and shielded from the hurtful realities. 

Children who are accustomed to having their parents make their plans and clean up their messes are unprepared to deal with what life may throw their way. They crumble easily under pressure from minor challenges and major obstacles alike​10​.

Social Anxiety and Phobia

Overprotectiveness conveys to the child a sense that the world is dangerous. It reinforces avoidance and keeps children from engaging in social situations restricting the opportunities to build friendship and learn social skills. Children raised with overprotective parenting tend to have less competent social skills

These children are also more likely to suffer from social anxiety or social phobia, which is characterized by fear and avoidance of social situation. This condition is usually accompanied by an excessive preoccupation with fears of rejection, criticism, or embarrassment​11,12​.

Fearful of Failure

Overprotective parents go out of their way to make sure their children don’t fail. They rescue their children quickly and provide them with unnecessary assistance, often without being asked.

A child from an overprotective family is afraid to make mistakes. Fearing failure, hurt, or rejection, they are reluctant to get out of their comfort zone to try something new. The child may shy away from opportunities. Instead of navigating hardships and solving problems on their own, these children become dependent on their parents. Their unwillingness to spread their wings and fly prevents them from becoming competent individuals​13​.

Depression & Psychological Wellbeing

Children raised by overprotective parenting are more likely to suffer from depression in adolescence​14​.

Parental overprotection is associated with prescription medication use for depression and the recreational consumption of pain pills in college students​15​.

girl is socially anxious, one of the overprotective parents effects

Low Self-esteem & Self-motivation

Besides higher occurrence of anxiety and depression, overprotected children also have lower self-esteem and confidence in their ability to solve everyday problem.

A person’s sense of self or self-esteem is largely based on how other people treat them in interactions​16​. Constantly monitored and protected children are given the message they are not capable, or good enough to manage life by themselves.

Without the chance to prove to themselves that they can take responsibility, these children cannot take full credit for their accomplishment to develop a sense of autonomy and competence.

As a result, they lack resilience, self-efficacy, and self-motivation that are essential to face the world on their own​17​.

Bullying Target

Overprotective parenting is associated with high degrees of bullying experienced by the child in school​18,19​.

Overprotected children are often treated as younger than their age. They are infantilized and not allowed to engage in rough play, assertion, exploration, or risk-taking activities necessary to develop conflict management and self-defense skills​20​.

Indecisive

Children from overprotective households are indecisive.

Kids need the opportunities to practice decision making, but overprotected children are never allowed to make their own choices in life. With no practice or preparation, they grow up not knowing how to make major decisions.

These children either do not know how to make such a decision or they are afraid of making a wrong one. They have learned to be dependent on their parents to make all the choices for them.

For example, a college student who perceive their parents as overprotective experiences more career indecision than those who have found their parents more encouraging of their independence in childhood​21​.

entitled girl wearing tiara, result of overprotective parenting style, especially prominent in high school

Entitlement & Maladaptive Narcissism

Studies have shown that parental overprotection is associated with narcissism in young adulthood​22​.

The extreme levels of responsiveness, help, and intervention from protective parents teach their children that they are exceptionally important. They are always worthy of intensive care and attention from others. Therefore, these children may feel titled to things they haven’t earned​23​.

Psychologists have found that when parental responsiveness is not given at age-appropriate levels, the child, or adult child, are more likely to develop pathologically narcissistic traits​24​.

Functional Somatic Symptoms

Overprotected adolescents are more likely to develop Functional Somatic Symptoms (FSS). The most prevalent FSS in children and teenagers are pain, fatigue, and gastrointestinal problems​25​.

Delinquency

One of the most damaging aspects of overprotection is when it is combined with the low care (emotional neglect) parenting. When overprotective parent exert high control and low emotions responsiveness, they are authoritarian parents.

Researchers have consistently found that this parenting method is closely linked to adolescents’ delinquency, depression and personality disorder​26​.

Overprotective and Other Parenting Styles

All good parents are protective parents, but not all protective parents are overprotective.

Overprotective parents are sometimes called helicopter parents because the parents hover over their children at all times.

Overprotective parents who are low in parental care and warmth are controlling parents or authoritarian parents.

These four parenting types have some overlap in characteristics, and therefore people sometimes use them interchangeably. But they may mean different things depending on who you talk to.

Among the four similar parenting styles, authoritarian parenting is the only clearly defined psychology construct. It is characterized by high control and low warmth.

Overprotective, helicopter and controlling parenting styles are not well defined, but they have one thing in common – high control. Other than the control part, these terms are not precisely established or consistently studied in psychology.

The word “overprotective” implies the parents aim to protect while the word “controlling” implies the parents aim to control. So these two parenting types may have some fundamental differences in terms of intention.

Overprotective parents are anxious about their children’s health and safety. They use control to achieve their goals of safekeeping. But controlling parents are authoritarian parents. They just want to control without a good cause.

Regardless of the terms, to not impede children’s development, parents should avoid smothering their children and foster a healthy sense of competence in them. Adopting a warm, responsive, and high-standard parenting style (i.e. authoritative parenting) is the best thing parents can do to protect their children in the long term.

Final Thoughts On Overprotective Parents

To raise resilient children, parents provide a safe haven in times of stress as well as during periods of calm. Set boundaries but also allow for adaptability. Only when kids have the opportunities to interact effectively with the outside world can they develop into capable, resilient and socially responsive future generations.


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