When Parents Are Overprotective
Consider the following scenario: “Did you call Jimmy to play? Oh, okay, what time did you say you would be there? Don't forget to take your jacket just in case the weather turns cold, and don't forget to look both ways when you cross our street, and remember to say thank you to Mrs. Michael for inviting you, and if she offers you something to eat, remember to chew with your mouth closed, elbows off the table, and say thank you when you are done. And, oh, don't forget to call me before you leave so I know you are on your way and can look for you as you make your way across the street.”
In 1946, Dr. Spock came out with his bestselling “baby bible,” Baby and Child Care. In it he encouraged parents to give their children appropriate amounts of increasing independence as a way to ready them for leaving home as healthy, secure young adults. Overprotectiveness, he said, just makes for anxious children.
Overparenting or being overprotective tends to have very negative consequences. The message your child will hear is, “I have to worry about you so much because you are not competent to deal with things on your own. You need my supervision and decision-making or this will end up badly.” Commonly, your child will end up feeling angry and insulted to what will feel like a put-down. Alternately, a child may simply “quit trying” because she feels she has no control in the world. Basically, overparenting becomes the opposite of what a parent's most important job is, to encourage autonomy and foster a healthy self-concept.
What the Doctors Say
Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, researching temperament, has shown unequivocally that what creates anxious children is parents hovering and protecting them from stressful experiences. He found that infants who were born “overexcitable” tended to cope better with life, and had a more positive outlook, if their parents gave them freedom to do, think, and make mistakes on their own.
The author of Worried All the Time: Rediscovering the Joy in Parenthood in an Age of Anxiety, David Anderegg, feels that parents have equated worrying, or protecting, children with being devoted to them. He states that in the past parents understood once their child left the house “God took over.” He also believes that years ago parents were clearer they could not be in control of what happened to their children once they left the home. Nowadays, parents talk to their kids by cell phone or text message them continuously while they are gone from the house. It is the new way to hover over your child.
Michael Liebowitz, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and head of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at New York State Psychiatric Institute, believes parents can have well-adjusted children if they take the time to gently encourage their children to try new things, even if they are scared, so they can learn that nothing bad will happen. “They need gradual exposure to find that the world is not dangerous. Having overprotective parents is a risk factor for anxiety disorders because children do not have opportunities to master their innate shyness and become more comfortable in the world.”
The general consensus is that when children are overprotected they never learn to modify or reshape the connections in their brain, as discussed in previous chapters. It is important to allow your child to change his perceptions, by continuous modification of the feared issue, so the anxiety does not follow her throughout her life.