Parenting is one of the hardest jobs around. Especially here, especially now, in our rapidly moving, constantly changing modern world. Most parents seek out this job willingly and joyfully with the best of intentions. Doesn’t everyone want to raise happy healthy children who grow up into competent independent adults? Of course. So what goes wrong?
It is easy to pick out the parents who are not doing their jobs. These are the parents who have too many problems of their own to contend with–like substance abuse, severe untreated mental illness, domestic violence or highly conflictual marriages, inadequate physical and emotional resources–so that they are clearly unable to provide the nurturing and supervision that all children need. Anyone can understand why children raised in unsafe and chaotic environments are at risk for developing emotional or behavioral problems.
But what about the kids who come from loving homes with well-meaning parents who shower their kids with attention, affection, guidance and opportunities of all kinds. Can you ever love a child too much? Probably not. Can you smother a child with too much love and attention? Yes indeed.
Parents today are far better informed about the importance of forming strong secure attachments with their infants. Babies need to know that their caregivers will meet not only their survival needs but their needs for touch, empathy, and connection. But with every passing year, children also need the freedom to explore independently in order to develop a sense of autonomy.
Finding the balance between the two is an exquisite dance of moving apart and then moving together again, like breathing in and breathing out, stepping forward and stepping back, leaning in and letting go. In my experience as a family therapist, I am seeing more and more parents struggling with the desire for too much closeness, and as a result producing kids–particularly teens and young adults–drowning in parental “love”.
In one highly publicized study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies by Holly Schiffrin and her team, young college students with hovering “helicopter” parents experienced their parents as controlling and undermining rather than supportive. Too much parental involvement was correlated with higher levels of anxiety and depression as well as decreased satisfaction with life. The overprotected students saw themselves as less competent and less able to function autonomously. The lower the sense of autonomy, the more the evidence of depression.
College counselors have names for these kids: crispies and teacups. The “crispies” are the college freshmen who arrive completely burned out from years of constant attention to achievement via AP classes, hundreds of volunteer hours, sports teams, and parental pressure to get into the best school. The “teacups” are so fragile that they break with the slightest stress.
These kids, suddenly on their own, without the muscles built up by independence and personal responsibility through childhood, often make bad choices regarding alcohol, drugs or sexual relationships once away from hovering parents. Many bomb out their freshman year. When I see these families in counseling, the parents are shell-shocked and confused. How did this happen when we loved our child so much?
If you see some of the telltale signs of that you are an over-involved parent in the list above, here are some tips to help you create a more healthy balance of closeness and distance in your relationship. Another question to ask yourself: how many times a day do you find yourself worried about one or all of your kids? Although parenting is a tough job, it shouldn’t be all consuming.
Tip #1: Remember that the goal of parenting is to foster independence and competency. If you are too close, your teen will have to push you away even harder so find ways to let go little by little with each passing year. Think about what your kid will have to be able to do to be fully independent. Start teaching those skills and attitudes now.
Tip #2: Teach your child how to work by allowing them to complete tasks on their own according to their age and ability. If you have done too many things for your child and not allowed him or her to struggle, then you are not teaching one of the basics. Adult life is not all fun and games–and work itself can be difficult, boring even, but give us a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Tip #3: Praise effort not intelligence. Not everyone can get A’s, win gold medals, or get promoted. In order to help your child develop competency, learn self-mastery and build the muscles necessary for adulthood, parents need to focus on effort more than outcomes.
Tip #4: Allow your child to experience pain, loss, and failures in order to develop resilience. If you cushion your child’s life too much, and solve problems for them, you deprive them of the opportunity of learning from natural consequences. If children can learn how to handle difficult situations when they are young, they will be stronger, realistic and more resourceful as adults.
Another definition of smothering is what we do to put out a fire. If you want to love your child AND keep the fire of that child’s passion, desire for freedom, curiosity and uniqueness burning brightly, take a step back and a deep breath. Love is also about letting go.
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Last reviewed: 17 Feb 2014