Overprotective parents come in all shapes and sizes. According to Hanna Rosin, “overprotective behavior of modern parents is destroying children’s independence, trapping them in a hyper-controlled bubble that they might never escape.” In fact, one study shows that so-called “helicopter parents” are most likely to be unhappy.
For example, overprotective parents limit risk-taking and make kids fearful of attempting new experiences. Rosin cites research out of Norway that shows that kids’ brains are programmed evolutionarily to be “risk takers in order to survive.” That is, kids who take risks tend to be less fearful, more independent adults, and kids who don’t take risks, end up on the sidelines of life. And Dr. Ellen Sangster who studied the effects of risk-taking in young kids says, “our fear of children being harmed . . . may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology . . . things like climbing, wrestling and exploring alone are essential in helping kids conquer small challenges so they can prepare for bigger ones.”
Furthermore, as insidious as it is to protect kids from taking risks, another side note to overprotective parents is the fact that they prevent kids from experiencing failure. In school, sports, playgroups, when their child fails, it is often the school or teacher’s fault. In playgroups it is always the other child who is at fault. Sadly, it is not unusual for such parents to move children to other schools or request to change teachers, and even change teams rather than actually realize that the problem is not the school, teacher or coach, but rather their overprotection and need to prevent the child from experiencing any level of failure.
Overprotective parents can actually affect a child’s brain development. For example, such children will often not bond with social or academic situations. The inability to bond is associated with a part of the brain called the limbic system. That is, children who fail to bond in various situations often take a “fight or flight” response to new situations. This inability prevents the child from bonding with new experiences and challenges, which can seriously affect the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for bonding and attaches to higher order thinking and the executive centers of the brain. The lack of the development of the ability to use our higher centers of the brain and actually think out of the box can block evolutionary thinking of such children.
Moreover, parents need to understand that their overprotection can begin early in the child’s life or the first few weeks of infancy. The late Dr. Margaret Mahler coined this period “separation and individuation.” Mahler theorized that after the first few weeks of infancy, in which the infant is either sleeping or barely conscious, the infant progresses first from a phase (Normal-Symbiotic Phase) in which it perceives itself as one with its mother within the larger environment, to an extended phase (Separation-Individuation Phase) consisting of several stages or sub-phases in which the infant slowly comes to distinguish itself from its mother, and then, by degrees, discovers its own identity, will, and individuality. It is this time when parents must pull back and allow the child to begin to experience their power through separation and establish or their so-called own individuality.
Psychologist Erick Erickson’s two early childhood stages would be antithetical to over protective parents. His first stage is defined as autonomy versus doubt (ages 18 months to 3) followed-by initiative versus guilt (ages 3-5). These two stages along with Mahler’s individuation and separation stage are essentially periods of the child’s life when overprotective parents could be setting a course of doubt, shame, guilt and failure for their children? David Sortino, Ph.D., a Graton resident, is director of The Neurofeedback Institute: Go to his blog and/or email him:neurofeedbackinstitute.blogspot.com