Anxious overprotective parents are those who protect their children out of a fear that their kids will be easily overwhelmed or damaged at the drop of a hat should something go wrong. They regard their kids as fragile crystal that might shatter into a million pieces should they sustain the slightest disturbance. As a result, these parents hover above their children like a military chopper providing cover for a ground platoon, restricting their child’s exploration (don’t climb on those rocks, you could get hurt!) and then swooping down in an instant anytime their child endures an upsetting event, no matter how small.
Consider the following scenario: A preschooler is running in the park and trips on a rock, falling down. Overprotective parents are inclined to swoop in immediately, pick up the tot, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But by not letting her experience this momentary confusion to figure out what happened and pick herself up again, parents are robbing their child of this practice at self-regulation, and may even stoke a child’s anxieties through their own anxious reaction, turning an otherwise mild event into something more.
Take the same scenario with a child whose parents aren’t overprotective. She trips and falls, but rather than being smothered right away, is left for a moment to cope on her own. Her parents aren’t unconcerned, but they observe the situation without rushing in to rescue her. She picks herself up, dusts off her hands, and discovers that she’s not really hurt anywhere, and has emerged no worse for the ware. She thinks, “Whoa, that was scary, but I think I’m OK now.” This child has just gotten practice in how to self-recover from scary experiences. More importantly, her parents have sent the message that she can recover on her own. Maybe in a different scenario she is hurt and starts to cry, reaching for Mom or Dad. Non-overprotective parents can then (in an unfrantic way) pick her up and offer comforting to help her return to a normal state.
Overprotective parents are too busy smothering their children to give them this opportunity to recover on their own, even if the kids would be fine without them. This actually undermines their child’s security rather than strengthening it, because not only does it rob them of practice in managing pain and disappointment, but it sends the implicit message that they are incapable of managing on their own. It’s like the parent giving a vote of no-confidence in their child. They are essentially saying, “You’re helpless, you need me, you can’t manage without me.”
The scenario described above is just one rather small example of the difference between overprotective parenting and normal parenting. But as these small differences recur in many different variations 30,000 or 40,000 times over the course of childhood, they begin to form a giant crater in the child’s ability to cope with life on their own.
Anxious overprotective parents also tend to let a fear of what might happen limit their child’s experiences. Psychologist Daniel Goleman writes of one such example: “A wealthy New York couple of my acquaintance had a daughter late in life. These middle-aged parents dote on her. They have hired a team of nannies to give her constant attention, and they have bought her what looks like an entire store’s worth of toys. But despite her castle like dollhouse, jungle gym, and rooms packed with playthings, it all seems a bit forlorn: this four-year-old has never had a friend over to play. Why? Her parents are afraid that another child might do something that would upset her.”
He goes on to add that “the couple subscribes to the misguided theory that if their child can avoid all stressful situations, she will develop into a happier person. That notion misreads the data on resilience and happiness: such overprotection is in fact a form of deprivation. The idea that a child should avoid misery at all costs distorts both the reality of life and the ways children learn to find happiness. …The goal for parenting should not be achieving a brittle ‘positive’ psychology – clinging to a state of perpetual joy in one’s children – but rather teaching a child how to return on her own to a state of contentment, whatever may happen.” (2006, p. 183)