If you're a millennial, one of the most common complaints you've heard made by older generations — along with allegations about our supposed narcissism and propensity to buy food instead of property (yes, baby boomers, it's all because of avocado toast, not because you wrecked the housing market) — is that we were all raised by extremely over-protective parents, which made us into extremely over-sensitive adults. The reality is, of course, a lot more complex. However, the debate does bring an interesting aspect of human experience to the forefront: What does having over-protective parents actually do to you — and does being over-protective to your kids create more harm than good?
Quantifying parental over-protectiveness is a bit tricky. Most decent parents are, understandably, prone to protect their children from threats and teach them about danger, because that's part of being a guardian. "Don't jump into that fire" and "get away from that dog that clearly has rabies" are minimum standards for parenting. But over-protectiveness is about more than protecting your kids from legitimate threats — as Milton Seligman noted in a 2000 text on parenting, over-protective parents' "major concerns center around protection against physical and psychological harm." Seligman also hypothesized that helicopter parents "have a heightened sense of the precariousness of their own existence and thus protect against tragedy with excessive care."
Whatever its root, over-protective behavior can be difficult to see because it often looks a lot like loving parenting. But its consequences — from preventing interactions with other peers to making a child afraid of their own shadow — can be pretty worrying, and carry on into adulthood.
If you've had an over-protective parent, chances are that your experience of your own self was filled with shame and doubt, as you weren't sure if you were capable of taking on a big bad world. If you did have the sorts of parents who called obsessively when you were out for more than five minutes or forbade you from doing anything remotely fun because of imagined dangers, this is how it might have affected your adult life.
Higher Risk Of Anxiety Disorders
It's definitely not the only cause, but psychologists have repeatedly discovered that teens and adults with anxiety disorders — particularly those centered around social interaction — are more likely to come from homes with over-protective parents. "Well-meaning over-protective parents," writes the psychologist Irving Weiner, "who shield their sensitive children from stressful events may inadvertently encourage a continuation of timidity by preventing the child from confronting fears and — by doing so — eliminating them."
Meaning: At a certain point, all kids have to discover that monsters under the bed aren't real, or that diving into pools from the top diving board won't kill them, or that talking to a new kid at school isn't actually terrifying. Parents who go to great lengths to prevent their kids from engaging with anything that might scare them might also prevent them from making these realizations, and so accidentally keep them stressed about old fears.
It's also about modeling behavior. Experiments have shown that anxious parents tend to produce anxious kids, because they demonstrate that the proper way to react to situations is through fear, worry and withdrawal. They can also make the kids believe the world is an inherently threatening place — which is the sort of thinking that makes people risk-averse and worrisome as adults.
Interestingly enough, this often extends to social situations too. If you find yourself deeply anxious at parties, it may be because your parents made you afraid of the approval of others and were constantly trying to correct you.
Sense Of Dependence On Your Parents
Feel like you can't make any major life decision without consulting your parents and getting their approval first? Feel like you can't make any minor life decision without consulting with your parents? Have a hard time deciding what to eat for lunch without texting them both about your options? That's a classic legacy of over-protective parents. If you've grown up being conditioned into thinking that they're the only ones who can truly take care of you and protect you from the world, your ability to assess adult decisions by yourself is often hampered.
To want your parents' input is one thing, but to feel deeply emotionally dependent and vulnerable without their help isn't a healthy position, and it's one that many kids of over-protective families face.
Tendency To Engage In Little (Or Lots Of) Risk-Taking Behavior
As we grow up, we take more risks, from leaving home to going on dates to travelling — but having over-protective parents can throw off the balance of acceptable risk-taking behavior. The most obvious, of course, is that risk-averse parents can push that ideology onto their kids, making them prone to avoiding things that are unknown or seem to carry potential dangers.
But there's also the potential for rebellion, or what experts call "excessive sensation-seeking": if you've spent your entire life being guarded against risk, it's also entirely viable that your rebellion against your parents will take the form of engaging in potentially dangerous behavior and taking large gambles with physical, mental or monetary safety.
A little risk-taking is good; getting out from under a smothering parent to, say, backpack across a continent or take on other challenges is often a step towards independence. But it can go too far, as kids from over-protective families have no real concept of real risk levels, and can become adults who push boundaries without fully understanding what's at stake.
Higher Odds Of Being Bullied
Kids can be awful, as anybody who's ever been bullied knows. And though bullying is never the fault of the person being bullied, over-protective parents often give their children fewer of the skills they need to fight back and protect themselves. As psychologist Lisa J. Cohen explains, "overprotective parents actually increase their child's risk of being targeted by bullies by hampering their independence and self-confidence and enhancing their sense of passivity and dependency." The problem with parents who swoop in to help their kids at every opportunity is, alas, the kids often learn they can't protect or care for themselves, and that they'll get by more easily if they just stay still and let other people do the work. It's a personality trait bullies often look for and target — and it can continue into adulthood.
This seems counter-intuitive — surely people whose parents were always fussing over them must believe they're deeply loved and valued, right? Not so much, it turns out. Experiments with the adult children of different types of families have found that people who grew up with over-protective parents often don't have that much self-esteem, even if they believe they're actually pretty confident and well-adjusted. The reason for this, apparently, is tied to how self-esteem is formed; a big part of it is in assessing how other people value us. And parents who are constantly protecting, standing in the way and wrapping us in cotton wool can send the message that the child in question is incapable, vulnerable, can't do this themselves, and wouldn't survive without help. They may get a lot of attention — but it's not necessarily the kind of attention that fosters self-love and acceptance.
So next time your mom tries to foist a third sweater on you or your dad laments that you're going on a vacation to an unknown place without enough protection, recognize it as problematic love, and attempt to remember that you're a capable person who can stand on their own two feet. And who does not need a third sweater.