“When does trying to protect them become overly restricting? Is there a happy balance?”

A reader posed that question about raising kids earlier this week and it’s a good one. We recognize a helicopter parent when we see one, especially by the time their kids are teenagers. But how about when they’re younger? Are there red flags in parenting style that might mark the beginning of overprotective parenting?

What is overprotective? How is it measured?

My disclaimer here: I have no children, my parents were pretty laissez-faire. I’m just throwing all this out there. You tell me if it makes sense.

I looked at a number of studies that mention overprotection and found that frequently, overprotection is assessed by the protected. In other words, researchers ask children if they feel their parents are overprotective; or they ask people who have had strokes if their caregivers are overprotective.

This presents a bit of a quandary, since it seems teens would be likely to complain of being overprotected because they’re ready to grow up already, and people who have had strokes may have their own reasons for feeling restricted—because they are anxious to feel “normal” again, because they have not adjusted to a power shift, because they are not aware of the extent of their impairment.

Then I found a study titled Parent–child interactions and anxiety disorders: an observational study.” It was a study of 95 children, ages 7 to 15, and their mothers, designed to assess the origins of anxiety disorders, from which most of the children suffered.

For the research, mother and child were seated at a table and the child was given a couple of tricky tasks, one with shapes and one with letters.

The mothers received the following instructions: “This is a test of your child’s ability. We want to see how good he/she is at thinking. Mum, you are going to sit there for support and you will have the answers for interest. Most kids can do it but some find it a bit hard to get going. You can help if you think he/she really needs it.”

Then:

“Each 5-minute mother–child interaction was rated on ten global scales measuring the degree of maternal involvement … The ten scales measured: (i) degree of unsolicited help (intrusiveness); (ii) general degree of help; (iii) touching of the tangram/scrabble pieces; (iv) mother’s focus during the interaction (towards the child or towards the task);… (v) mother’s posture; …The first five of the above scales were devised as a measure of parental control, that is, the mother’s involvement during the task….”

So if you picture the scene, you can imagine some mothers taking pieces from their kids’ hands to set them into the puzzles, or giving their kids “warmer, colder, warmer…” guidance. Some mothers might give instructions. Some, I suppose, might grow indignant at the difficulty of the task, even though there was really nothing at stake. The child would get the answer or not, and no harm done.

The  warmer-colder parents might be  a tad overprotective, the piece-snatchers a little controlling.

What would you do?

The researchers found that the mothers were less likely to help the older kids than they were the younger, which is not surprising. And it’s good.

In the real world, of course, the stakes are higher than in the lab. Handing the car keys over to a 16-year-old is a lot different from letting a child finish a puzzle. Still, the study might be a useful little cognitive map. Breaking down the five measures:

1) Degree of unsolicited help (intrusiveness): Are you providing help where none was requested in a situation where failure would not be life threatening?

2) General degree of help: Are you offering help then stepping back, or are you staying involved start to finish?

3) Touching of the tangram/scrabble pieces: Are you getting all up in your child’s stuff? Are you doing homework, meeting weekly with teachers, checking up hourly?

4) Parent’s focus during the interaction (towards the child or towards the task): Are you making your child miserable and not noticing? Are you not taking into consideration your child’s level of development?

5) Parent’s posture: Are you standing too close?

The reader wondered about a “happy balance” between protection and overprotection. I was going to say that it would be the time when everybody is happy, but maybe not. With teenagers, as the stakes get higher, you’ll probably have to be satisfied with everybody being slightly unhappy.

And even if you find a happy balance one day, everything changes every day. Parents have to assess how much guidance their own children need at every stage of development, each time they sit down to do a new puzzle (metaphorically speaking).