Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Over" Parenting: Is It a Problem?

I was recently asked to respond to some questions about "over" parenting for a UK parenting website, yano.co.uk. Below are the questions with my responses:

Do you think that "over" parenting is a legitimate problem? If so, how serious do you think it is and what implications have you noticed in your academic/clinical work?

“Over” parenting or “helicopter” parenting are terms that have become more prominent in the past several years. Is it because it is actually becoming an issue or are people just noticing it more now? It is not clear. One could argue that parents who are “overly” involved in their children’s lives are concerned about their well being and safety, given the many challenges in society today (e.g., economic, social, educational, etc.). On the flip side, some might say the parents’ concerns about their children actually stem from their own personal fears and anxieties that are being projected onto the children. Either way, it is not a bad thing for parents to be involved in their children’s lives, as long as children have room to grow and develop.

A parent’s job is to provide children with a safe, calm, dependable, nurturing environment where their emotions are acknowledged and supported and they feel confident in the strength of their parents’ guidance. Children need structure, boundaries and limits to feel safe and they also need encouragement to explore. This combination of things can help children feel a sense of value, worth and confidence in themselves. The parent/child relationship really just needs to be “good enough.” (This is an idea developed by D.W. Winnicott. For a brief summary/discussion of this concept, see http://changingminds.org/disciplines/psychoanalysis/concepts/good-enough_mother.htm). Parents do not need to nor are they expected to be perfect. If there are more positive, loving, consistent interactions between parents and children than negative interactions, parents should feel confident that their children will be ok in the world, make good decisions, and do well in life and relationships.

All that said, “over” parenting can be a problem if it is creating difficulties for a child. Children need to be able to manage their own emotions, get along with others, make decisions, handle conflict, advocate for themselves, enjoy their successes and deal with disappointment. It is the parents’ job to serve as the container for these things early in the child’s life but, if the parenting is “good enough,” the child incorporates those functions over time and begins to take on those responsibilities as he/she grows. If the parents need, or feel inclined, to continue to take on this role in situations where the child should be able to manage for him/her self, this might be indicative of a problem with the child, the parents, and/or, more likely, in the relationship itself. Children may then struggle in school, with peer relationships, family or authority figures, in social situations, and with impulse control or self-esteem.

Do you deal often with someone who claimed to be "over" parented, either presently or in the past? Are there any notable examples?

One adolescent in particular comes to mind. This child, for a variety of reasons stemming back to when she was much younger, was rather anxious. This made it difficult for her to handle assignments in school and she often became overwhelmed to the point of emotionally breaking down. This was a very painful and embarrassing experience for her as well as her parents, who desperately, and with all good intention, wanted to help. Her parents regularly talked with her teachers, who were also very motivated to intervene. Some good supports were put into place to help this child manage her anxieties but it eventually became too much; assignments were reduced or dismissed, the child did not have to participate in certain classroom activities, she was able to leave the room, expectations were not as high, etc. Though this seemed beneficial at first, the child herself said that even though she appreciated her parents’ involvement and everyone’s concern, she needed to learn to handle her feelings herself and taking away responsibilities ultimately made her feel worse. Fortunately, her parents got this message and they were able to step back. For this child, it made a huge difference.

What would your advice be to parents who you think are interfering a little too much, and what do you think is the most telling sign that "over" parenting is going on?

If parents feel that they are working excessively hard when it comes to their children or someone points this out to them, that is a pretty good sign that they may be taking on more than they need to. Are they more involved in their child’s life than their child is? Parenting is an important and challenging job and it is not easy. It is also not easy to be a child but parents should maintain their roles and let their children experience their childhood. This means being involved when they need to be and feeling comfortable giving their child some space and control when appropriate. Ideally, parents’ should feel confident in the knowledge that they did a “good enough” job with their children and that their children can handle some things on their own.

Do you think that (if it is actually a problem) "over" parenting will improve or get worse over time?

The more that parents are open to continually exploring, questioning, and understanding their own feelings, motivations, relationships, and behaviors (i.e., what is being stirred in them that leads them to be overly involved), the more in tune they will be with their own internal world and the better their interactions will be with their children. Self awareness is an incredible gift for a parent to be able to offer a child and something that can benefit that child for a lifetime. If parents are open to this, “over” parenting is less likely to be an issue in the future.