There are any number of reasons for why we fall into the trap of being what Alfred Adler (1870-1937) termed over-protective parents. The first being, this was how we were raised. Growing up with a model of parenting where everything was done for the child was and is a symbol of privilege. It would seem only natural for us to give to our children every right and privilege we ourselves enjoyed.
Another reason, and maybe most common, is anxiety. Anxiety and fear are closely related emotions. There are an abundance of reasons to experience both as we bring children into this world. Since it is neither easy nor attractive to watch our children fail, do poorly, make mistakes or physically hurt themselves, many parents choose not to experience the anxiety or fear of being mere observers of their children’s lives when they can feel more in control if they jump in and help. In extreme cases, parents who already live with high levels of anxiety are almost incapable of letting the unknown nature of childhood hold sway over their children. The thought of not being in control of circumstances when or if something does happen, we tell ourselves, it is more than we can bare.
There are also the parents who, with all good intentions, push their child toward perfection. This comes out of either a need to have the child succeed where the parent failed, such as in a music or sports career, or to “help” the child have all the drive and determination that they had when growing up.
Then there are parents who believe deep down that their child can’t succeed without intervention from an adult. This belief may stem from an early failure in either the child’s or the parent’s life.
So why should we worry about being over-protective, helicopter, or as we say today rescue parents? What harm can come of it? Again, referring to Alfred Adler, he proposed that early in life we adopt coping strategies that when successful we incorporate into our worldview and day-to-day adult lives. For example, many of us have seen the child who only needs to hesitate or whine about completing a task in order to have an adult step in and complete it for him. As the child ages the behaviors become more sophisticated and the world view of “someone will fix this for me” is carried into adulthood. As a result, the socially acceptable responses to painful experiences that are most likely learned in the teen and earlier years and which are most helpful to us in adulthood are the skills that are most lacking in the children of over-protective parents.
Children of over-protective parents show a tendency to use fewer problem solving skills before looking for a savior, or pass the responsibility of tackling even moderately difficult tasks on to others more quickly. As adults they may utilize the behaviors that worked as a child, such as anger, petulance or disdain when addressing challenging situations,.
Negative reactions to challenges faced by children of over-protective parents fall into two categories: They may question whether they are capable of standing up to challenges and responding accordingly. They may act out of a sense of entitlement and may think the challenge is beneath them. As a result, socially-inappropriate responses to difficult experiences are more likely because the skills that should have been learned through emotionally challenging experiences in childhood are missing.
The good news is, even though the child is at a disadvantage, working from a position of having to learn skills she naturally should have learned years earlier, much of this over-protective upbringing can be mitigated as coaches, mentors and peers become increasingly more important in a child’s life. Still the child needs to want to make these changes for growth to happen.
This in no ways means to imply that parents shouldn’t help their child when a child needs a helping hand. But if child and parent have fallen into a pattern of rescuing, the parent does the child no favor by “finishing the job” for her. On the other hand if, like all of us, a child is pre-occupied or forgets a step in a process and this is not a pattern, yes, by all means an adult should lend a hand.
Can we change this pattern if we’ve already fallen into the habit? The good news is, yes. We all have the capacity for change. The first item of business is to uncover one’s own motivation for the behavior. Is it anxiety over a dangerous world, or has the anxiety and need for control always been a part of the parent’s life? Clearly reviewing theories of child development would be in order. We learn our limits by discovery of our boundaries. We learn our abilities by doing and achieving. We build self-esteem by being proud of our accomplishments. Over-protective parents take many of these life milestones from children, leaving children to wonder who they really are and what they might have been if left to their own devises.