Overprotective Parenting and Anxiety
Last updated: July 23, 2020
Overprotective parenting – parents who protect their children from harm, hurt and pain, unhappiness, bad experiences, rejection, hurt feelings, failure, and disappointments – has been long associated with the development of anxious behavior in children.
A classic example of overprotective parenting is when a parent removes all obstacles their children face to encourage their success.
While there is no guarantee that an overprotected child will develop issues with anxiety, we know with certainty that being overprotected substantially increases one’s risk of developing anxiety as a disorder. We see this connection often in our work with anxious therapy clients.
Overprotective Parenting as a Parenting Style
Most of us have heard the term helicopter parent. Most of us also likely know people who fit the description of a doting, overprotective parent. However, if we are honest, we might overly protect our children at times ourselves, or had overprotected them when they were growing up. It’s easy to do.
After all, what do we want more than to keep our precious children safe from harm and emotional hurt? Isn’t that our job as parents?!
The term Helicopter Parent, meaning a parent who hovers over their child ready to intervene at any moment when harm is detected,was first used in 1969 in Dr. Haim Ginott’s book, Between Parent and Teenager.
While helicopter parenting was an issue back then, it’s become much more of an issue now.
Research indicates that the most common ways an overprotective parent tries to keep their child safe include:
- Overly comforting and reassuring
- Overly strict and unreasonable punishment
- Over emphasize success
- Overly strict supervision and restriction
- Meticulous involvement in the child’s life, especially academics
- Overly reinforcing safety behaviors
- Creating a “parent will protect you” mindset
- Reliance on a system of punishments and rewards
Creating a dependent child
By preventing the child from taking responsibility and showing autonomy, overprotective parents create dependent children rather than children who grow up to be independent and self-reliant.
The above qualities are not necessarily, in themselves, all bad. There are many positive outcomes associated with a desire to protect our children, provided they are used appropriately and in moderation.
For instance, if the child could be in real and significant danger, it’s healthy to advise against, and even restrict that type of activity. It’s also healthy to offer advice when the child asks for it. However, we don’t want to be inserting ourselves into every decision the child needs to make.
While the intention may be a loving one, many complications can result for the child if healthy protection becomes overprotection.
The side effects of overprotection often include:
- Low self-esteem
- Social anxiety
- Unhealthy attachment styles/relationships
- Learned helplessness
- Issues with over criticalness
- Lower ratings of overall well-being
To name a few.
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One of the most significant and pervasive side effects, however, is the development of an anxiety disorder.
Because overprotecting the child requires a parent to be hyper-sensitive to everything going on with and around the child, this hyper-sensitivity often unintentionally leads to oversensitivity to danger in the adult. The adult then models this oversensitivity to the child who internalizes it as “the way” to interact with the world.
Moreover, the parental assumption that the world is a dangerous place is also modelled for the child, which the child can also pick up as another “normal” behavior even at a very early age. In fact, most of these factors are subconsciously internalized by the child prior to the age of 8!
So, even as an infant, the child learns from its parents how to perceive the world and then assume this is how life should be approached.
Consequently, an overprotected child becomes fearful of the world and avoids any situation the child has been shown could be dangerous. This approach to life strengthens the belief that the world is so dangerous that the child must undertake go-to anxiety behaviors to protect itself from it.
Here are some of the other consequences of overly protective parental behavior:
Exposure to stress
Research indicates that exposure to short term, acute stress benefits the development of the child’s brain. Everything from social skills and intelligence, to even improved immune system response, has been linked to exposure to short and acute stress.
I’m not referring to chronic stress, which can be detrimental. I’m referring to short-term, acute stress that is natural in life, and that a child must learn to cope with and manage in order to thrive.
By keeping our children from challenges that involve confrontation, physical exertion, competition, fear, and yes, the potential for failure, we remove the opportunity to learn how to manage these issues, to grow from them, and to experience them in a real but healthy way.
By shielding our children from these kinds of experiences, we increase the likelihood that they will be unsure how to handle situations such as these in the future, which in turn leads to uncertainty and anxiety.
Children of overprotective parents tend to report decreased life satisfaction, reduced confidence, lower rating in psychological well-being, lack of independence, and inadequate coping skills. As mentioned, a lack of exposure to normal life events will generate insecurity when dealing with them.
In addition, the message they perceive when a parent is overprotective is often that the parent must believe them not to be competent to manage these issues on their own or without help.
Over time, this insecurity can become part of their self-concept, wherein they assume that they are simply not as capable as other people. Continuously viewing their lives through this lens can lead to underachievement and a lack of willingness to attribute their own actions to any successes they have in life.
Today we live in a culture where the over-protection of children is encouraged more than ever. Greg Lukianoff authored a book called, The Coddling of the American Mind (2014), which addresses this issue.
In it, he discusses how, over time, we have increased the protection we believe our children need, mostly in response to increased exposure to information regarding dangers found in the world.
In this day and age, we see danger at every turn, and media and social media provide a constant source of situations that appear to hold the potential to harm our children.
Unfortunately, the likelihood that these things will take place is often not discussed, which leads to the underlying belief that such events are more prevalent than they actually are. This understanding makes the world out to be even more dangerous than it is.
We, as a society, have begun to embrace the perception that we must protect against these dangers even if they are not likely to apply to us. As a result of these changes to our perceptions, millennials feel nearly double the stress that generations before Baby Boomers felt at the same age.
As children try to cope with this stress and espouse the methods of their over-protective parents to manage it, anxiety thought and behavioral patterns are established, which lead to problems in all aspects of life, from school, to social settings, and to family life.
These troubles further increase our children’s stress, which they then continue to deal with using the same unhealthy behaviors. Consequently, the snowball rolls on!
I am not claiming there aren’t very real risks to our children in this world. There are many. It is our responsibility as parents to keep our children safe from those risks.
However, overprotecting our children does them a great disservice, including setting them up for a struggle with anxiety disorder.
If you believe you have overprotected your child and your child is exhibiting anxious behavior, consider connecting your child with one of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists. Many of our recommended therapists work with children to help them overcome problems with anxiety.
Working with a therapist is the most effective way to overcome issues with anxiety. The sooner the child works to overcome anxiety issues, the better. Early intervention produces the best results.
If you’ve discovered you are an overprotective parent, and you’d like to learn healthy parenting skills, consider connecting with one of our recommended therapists. Working with an experienced therapist can help you develop healthy parenting skills that will benefit you, your children, and your family over the long-term.
NOTE: Recovery Support members can read the expanded version of this article in chapter 20.
Common Anxiety Symptoms
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
- For a comprehensive list of Anxiety Disorders Symptoms Signs, Types, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment.
- Anxiety and panic attacks symptoms can be powerful experiences. Find out what they are and how to stop them.
- How to stop an anxiety attack and panic.
- Free online anxiety tests to screen for anxiety. Two minute tests with instant results. Such as:
- Anxiety 101 is a summarized description of anxiety, anxiety disorder, and how to overcome it.
Return to Anxiety Articles section.
1. Spokas, Megan, and Helmberg, Richard. "Overprotective Parenting, Social Anxiety, and External Locus of Control: Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Relationships." Cognitive Therapy and Research, December 2009, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225326235_Overprotective_Parenting_Social_Anxiety_and_External_Locus_of_Control_Cross-sectional_and_Longitudinal_Relationships
2. Gere, Martina, et al. "Overprotective parenting and child anxiety: The role of co-occurring child behavior problems." Journal of Anxiety Disorders, August 2012, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0887618512000667
3. Fulton, Jessica, et al. "Associations between Perceived Parental Overprotection, Experiential Avoidance, and Anxiety." Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 2014, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.5127/jep.034813
4. Odenweller, Kelly, et al. "Investigating Helicopter Parenting, Family Environments, and Relational Outcomes for Millennials." Taylor & Francis Online, 28, July 2014, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10510974.2013.811434
5. Trautner, Tracy. "Overprotective parenting style." Michigan State University, 19 January 2017, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/overprotective_parenting_style
6. Van Ingen, D. J., Freiheit, S. R., Steinfeldt, J. A., Moore, L. L., Wimer, D. J., Knutt, A. D., Scapinello, S. and Roberts, A. (2015). Helicopter Parenting: The Effect of an Overbearing Caregiving Style on Peer Attachment and Self‐Efficacy. Journal of College Counseling, 18, 7-20.
7. Luebbe, A. M., et al. "Dimensionality of Helicopter Parenting and Relations to Emotional, Decision-Making, and Academic Functioning in Emerging Adults." Assessment, 1-1
8. Murray, L., et al. "The effects of maternal social phobia on mother? infant interactions and infant social responsiveness." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 7 Sep 2006, https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2006.01657.x
9. Lents, N. "Yes, Overprotective Parenting Harms Kids." Psychology Today, 28 Aug 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beastly-behavior/201608/yes-overprotective-parenting-harms-kids
10. LeMoyne, Terri, and Buchanan, Tom. "DOES “HOVERING” MATTER? HELICOPTER PARENTING AND ITS EFFECT ON WELL-BEING." Journal Sociological Spectrum, Volume 31, 2011, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02732173.2011.574038
11. Schiffrin, H.H., Liss, M., Miles-McLean, H. et al. Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being. J Child Fam Stud 23, 548–557 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-013-9716-3
12. Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. "The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure." New York City: Penguin Books. Sep 2018.
13. "Stress in America." (n.d.). Retrieved July 04, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report
14. Williams, G. "Why Children of Overprotective Parents Are Slated to Fail in Life." wehavekids.com, 28 Sep 2019.https://wehavekids.com/parenting/Children-of-Overprotective-Parents-Are-Slated-For-Failure
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