A Guide to help Youth with Overprotective Parents
Leena could pass for twenty or twenty-one, though she was only thirteen years old. She stood five feet seven inches tall with long dark hair, a well-developed figure, and brown eyes that shone with personality and confidence. Her parents, of course, watched their thirteen-year-old develop the body and personality one would expect in a woman much older than their little girl with more than a little concern, They were too worried about her.
Not that Leena never gave her parents cause of concern. She became interested in boys much earlier than her peers. Starting late in her fourth-grade year, her parents began reacting to Leena’s growing independence and maturity by pulling in the reins. As Leena’s peers were beginning to receive more privileges and freedom from their parents, Leena’s mom quit work in order to “be there” for Leena; Leena was convinced her mom was intent on “Keeping an eye on her.”
By her thirteenth birthday, Leena had devised a system for getting away with things and circumventing her parent’s rules. She discovered, for example, that if she asked to spend the night with a friend from her own community, Mom and Dad would say yes; she could then talk that friend into going to the mall to meet boys.
Leena’s parents felt like they were trying to swim upstream against Leena’s will and her desires; Leena felt that if her parents were going to cause such trouble to keep boys away from her, there must be something unimaginably pleasurable that they didn’t want her to discover. Little by little, however, Leena’s parents succeeded in monitoring her behavior to such a degree that she stopped planning ways to get around their rules. She stopped engineering ways to meet boys. In fact, she stopped shopping, she stopped dressing for attention, she even stopped bathing.
Problem of Overprotective Parents
“During my years as a school psychologist,” says Dr Bernice Berk, “I’ve encountered many overprotective parents. While it’s clear they don’t want to be overprotective, their concerns about their child prevent them from allowing him to do things that he’s perfectly capable of doing.”
One of the major tasks of parenting, of course, is to encourage enough confidence and capabilities in a child to equip him or her to leave home and function independently of Mom and Dad when he or she reaches adulthood. But overprotectiveness is a hesitation or inability to do that.
Overprotectiveness is often hard to gauge, but it may be shown in number of ways:
- Parents will not let the young person out of their sight except at school.
- Parents relate to the teen very similarly to the way they relate to the child as an eight-year-old or ten-year-old.
- Parents screen or monitor the teen’s phone calls (and WhatsApp chat)
- Parents consistently refuse permission for the teen to do things considered age-appropriate by other reasonable parents.
- Parents exhibit a determination to protect the child from all harm.
- Parents offer oversight of even the smallest details in the teen’s life.
- Parent’s actions and decisions seem designed to foster dependence, not independence.
- Parent’s rules are applied rigidly and are equally nonnegotiable.
- Parents seem to have difficulty trusting the young person.
The above, of course, are highly subjective measurements of overprotectiveness. The most reasonable parent, for example, will sometimes refuse permission for his son or daughter to do things that other reasonable parents consider appropriate. Generally speaking, however, the above tendencies are typical of overprotective parents.
Cause of Overprotective Parenting
There are a variety of reasons parents respond to their task in an overprotective manner. Such behavior may be founded upon one or more of the following causes.
Fear is a common factor among overprotective parents. Today’s world is a frightening place in which to raise children, and many parents worry about their children’s vulnerability to the dangers they see featured on the news channels. But overprotective parents are sometimes fearful to an irrational degree. “While a certain amount of fear for children’s safety is normal and healthy,” says Berk, “allowing exaggerated fears to prevent [youth] from engaging in the normal activities with their peers can be harmful.”
A Sibling’s Rebellious Behavior
Overprotectiveness may also stem from a sense of failure with another (typically older) child. For example, Roshni gave her parents every reason to trust her and allow her to attend night party with her school friends. But because her older sister’s first experiment with alcohol occurred at a school night party, Roshni’s parents refused to allow her to attend similar parties, fearing Roshni would follow in her sister’s footsteps. Roshni was not the same sort of person her sister was, but she nonetheless had to pay for her sibling’s behavior.
If one or both of the parents had neglectful or ineffective parenting, they may respond by becoming overly protective. Parenting styles are typically a reflection of -or a reaction to- the way we were parented. Similarly, if one or both parents were rebellious in their childhood or adolescence, they may respond by determining that they will prevent their child from making similar choices.
The Child’s Misbehavior or Shortcomings
If a parent views a child as immature, incapable, or limited by physical, mental, or developmental handicaps, he may respond by becoming overly protective. Indeed, at some level there is a need to protect such a child; however, an overprotective parent will usually resort to counterproductive control and manipulation rather than healthy support and encouragement based on an understanding of the child’s potential to develop and mature. Extra parental precautions may indeed be required by certain children, but there must still be a balance between ensuring safety and allowing our children to try new things and develop new capabilities.
Lack of Relationship
Many parents try to lay down rules without first establishing a real relationship with their children. Mom and Dad may see their parental role as primarily that of a policeman or judge; they focus on rules and may measure how well they are doing by how many rules they have established and how well the children adhere to those rules. Such parents, not knowing how to form and nurture a real relationship, may rely on the good behaviors of a child to bolster the parent’s own relational needs-a poor and unfulfilling substitute, of course.
Only Child/Death of Child/ Adopted Child
Parents of only children may tend toward overprotectiveness, perhaps more so than parents of two or more children. A parent of an only child may focus excessively on the needs of that child and become fearful (consciously or unconsciously) of losing him or her. There is often a similar reaction by a parent who has lost one child to accidental death or disease; the parent may begin to develop irrational fears about the surviving children that prompt overprotective behavior. Similar unconscious beliefs may be experienced by adoptive parents who may carry a sense that they did not deserve a child and therefore must overcompensate with protective behavior.
Parental Loss or Emotional Needs
Sometimes mothers who feel unfulfilled in their relationships with spouses will divert their pain by focusing obsessively on a child. (This can also be true of fathers, though that is less common.) Some parents become overly protective in an effort to fill their own emotional needs; they are fearful that if they lose the child their own love needs will be unmet. They may also believe that they are protecting the young person from a father’s (or mother’s) lack of involvement.
Effects of Overprotective Parenting
“Can overprotectiveness harm a child?” asks Dr. Berk. “Certainly, it can,” she says, answering her own question.
“Children learn not from our experiences but their own. They need to have opportunities to take reasonable risks, to make mistakes, and to live with the consequences of their own actions. Overprotectiveness on the part of a parents will interfere with that natural process.”
Psychiatrist Michael Liebowitz goes so far as to say that “overprotectiveness brings out the worst in kids.” The effects of overprotective behavior in parents vary based on the personality of the child, the degree of connection with or distance from the parent, and the severity of the overprotective behavior.
When children feel controlled by a parent, the most natural response is anger (see Anger – Bijoyful). They may repress their anger out of fear of Mom or Dad’s response, but it will be present, nonetheless. The anger can turn inward and become depression (see Depression – Bijoyful) or it can turn outward and be expressed in rebellion.
Some children of overprotective parents reach their thirty (and beyond) and cannot leave home. The child may get married but never put an end to his or her dependence on Mom and Dad; some will even live next door to Mom and Dad- or very nearby. The parents’ overprotective behavior has stunted the young person’s emotional development.
There are a variety of contributing factors to eating disorders such as anorexia (self-starvation), bulimia (bingeing and purging), and compulsive overeating. For many children of controlling parents, eating activities become a way to control negative feelings. Bulimia and anorexia become a “tool” a young person uses to regain a sense of control over his or her own life.
Dr Michael Liebowitz, the head of Columbia University’s unit on panic disorders, has observed that “an unusually high proportion of panic patients report having had overprotective parenting in childhood.” Because fear is at the root of the parents’ overprotective behavior, the child often picks up on the fear and may develop anxiety disorder or a full-blown panic disorder. Agoraphobia (irrational fear of leaving “home base”) is a possibility in some children of overprotective parents.
Parents don’t want to raise proud or arrogant children, yet overprotective parents often make the opposite mistake of unwittingly teaching their children that they (the children) are incapable of caring for themselves and making decisions for themselves. The youth develop a sense that he is incompetent (in his abilities) and inadequate (in his self.) (see Unhealthy Self-Esteem – Bijoyful).
The way we learn to relate to peers is an important developmental task throughout our lives. When a child is overprotected, peers are usually limited to the people the parents know well and trust; there is usually limited opportunity to develop social skills in various settings, which will often cause insecurity, prompting the young person to withdraw from peers by becoming a “loner.”
Delayed Spiritual Growth
Overprotective parents teach children to rely on Mom and Dad. This may prompt the young person to depend less- or not at all- on God. Overprotective parents may teach truth about God, and the child may be well grounded in the foundations of religious faith. However, the controlling parent undermines the young person’s relationship with God by (perhaps unknowingly) trying to be God to him or her.
Response to the Problem of Overprotective Parents
A concerned adult has a two-fold task in responding to a young person whose parents may be overprotective: to help the youth by being supportive and encouraging and also (when practical) to help and reassure the parents.
The first step, of course, is to listen to the young person and his or her problems and frustrations. You may wish to ask such questions as:
- When did you first begin to feel this way (about your parents)?
- Have things gotten better or worse as you’ve grown?
- (If the youth have siblings) Do your siblings feel the same way? How would you describe their feelings?
- Have you ever tried to discuss this with your parents? If not, why not? If so, with what results?
Don’t be too quick to defend the parents, but don’t criticize them, either. Let the young person discover that there is (at least) one adult who is interested in his or her feelings. Just providing a listening ear can go a long way toward help and healing.
As the teen discusses his or her frustration with the parents, cultivate an atmosphere of empathy towards the youth by:
- Nodding your head
- Making eye contact
- Leaning forward in your chair to indicate interest and concern
- Speaking in soothing tones
- Listening carefully to verbal and nonverbal communication.
- Reflecting key statements or gestures (“You seem to be saying. . .” and “You really feel angry about that, don’t you?”
Also, consider the prospect that the teen may feel guilty for his anger toward Mom and Dad. Help him acknowledge the bad and good feelings he has toward his parents and their behavior.
Seek to affirm the teen’s sense of value and worth without undermining the parents’ God-given place in his or her life. Author Dick Foth writes, “We need to hear over and over again that we are valued and valuable. Somethings fundamental happens when a person says, ‘Just being around you is a joy,’ or ‘When you come into the room, something exciting happens,’ or ‘You have a great smile.'” Display your esteem of the young person not only by your words but by your actions too.
Help the young person consider his or her options within a framework, such as the following:
- Lead the teen into relationship with God, into a deeper relationship with Him, Lord of life, health, and peace.
- Encourage the youth to turn to God in prayer and rely on Him for the resources he or she lacks.
- She (or he) is likely to know that she is commanded to honor her father and mother; help her brainstorm ways to honor them (and, perhaps, understand them better) while still accurately viewing her own abilities and possibilities.
- Guide the youth to open a respectful, non-threatening dialogue, if possible, with Mom and Dad; one way to accomplish this may be with the method suggested by Ron Hutchcraft, of the teen writing a letter (or series of letters) to express his or her love and appreciation for his or her parents and then respectfully voicing his or her concerns, frustrations, and even proposals for resolving differences between parent and child. Such a method, if it is done sensitively and respectively, can be extremely helpful in opening doors and breaking down walls.
- Brainstorm ways the youth might prove his or her trustworthiness and capabilities to Mom and Dad and help him or her work toward those goals.
Strive to enlist the teen’s participation in the community youth group since this is likely to be a place where parents feel the young person is reasonably safe. Build a relationship with both parents and teen that might encourage Mon and Dad to allow the youth to try new experiences and test a new degree of independence under your supervision. Help the young person aim for improvement, not perfection, in his or her relationship with Mom and Dad.
If at any time you, as the concerned adult, recognize that the health or long-term well-being of the young person is threatened (by severe depression, panic disorder, eating disorder, etc), it is time to encourage the family to consult a professional counselor who is qualified to address these specific issues in a constructive manner.
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery, livelihood programs and support offered by counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.