The terms ‘bubble-wrap parents’ and ‘helicopter parenting’ are being used more and more in our society. The media appears to be constantly reporting crimes, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and health epidemics, which can create the illusion that the world is becoming a more and more dangerous place. This, along with a general increase in the prevalence of anxiety disorders, may be contributing to a generation of increasing parental anxiety. The following are some common behaviours of anxious parents, along with the potential effects they may have:
Parental overprotection involves shielding children from harsh realities. For parents of younger children, this may involve a parent following their child around to prevent them from hurting themselves, intervening immediately if another child is being unreasonable to their child, carrying their child around to keep them closer and protected, and generally preventing their child from engaging in any form of risk-taking. For parents of older children, overprotection can involve anything that prevents the child from taking responsibility for consequences. This may be complaining to the school if their child is reprimanded for misbehavior, checking over and rewriting an essay before it is submitted in order to prevent the child from experiencing failure, or shielding their child from being privy to upsetting information (e.g. family illnesses, job loss) to protect them from experiencing upsetting emotions.
Parental overprotection is usually the result of genuine love and concern, however, it prevents children from developing resilience and the ability to take responsibility for their own mistakes. This can impact in many life domains, such as at work, university and socially. If children do not become used to dealing with a variety of positive and negative emotions, upon adulthood they may find it more difficult to continue functioning when things inevitably don’t go their way.
Parental overcontrol involves preventing children from taking charge of an area where they need to develop autonomy and independence. This parenting approach tends to become more obvious with older children and adolescents, as these are stages at which children tend to begin developing independence and testing boundaries.
Overcontrol of a child can involve their parent making decisions about how they should spend time and energy, such as choosing what elective or year 12 subjects a student should do, what sports they should play or what university course they should undertake. It also involves taking over activities that are the child’s responsibility, such as doing their homework and assignments for them. Finally, it can involve setting restrictive boundaries and preventing the child from moving beyond them, such as severely limiting friendship options, social outlets and curfews, and engaging in checking behaviours, such as calling or texting several times during an event to ensure the child is not overstepping boundaries, or accompanying an older child to a social event when it is not necessary for a parent to do so.
The problem with parental overcontrol is that, aside from preventing children from developing independence, it also prevents them from experiencing the most powerful learning experiences of all – mistakes. We have all had experiences of being given advice, ignoring it, and having a resultant unpleasant experience. This negative outcome usually helped us to understand why we were given the original advice and encouraged us to follow it in the future. It is these experiences that truly help children to become wiser and more sensible human beings over time.
Modelling Anxious Behaviour
A less overt problem that children of anxious parents may encounter is being constantly exposed to their parents’ anxiety. Parental anxiety usually involves excessive worrying about the potential for things to go wrong. Anxious parents may verbalise their worries to their children, who may then take on these fears and concerns as their own. Some people also often appear anxious in the way they act in certain situations, such as being ‘highly strung’, ‘jumpy’, jittery, fidgety or avoidant (e.g. avoiding eye contact, avoiding phone calls, avoiding other situations they find difficult). Children can learn that certain situations lead their parents to be anxious, which may lead them to feel similarly threatened by those situations and to cope in a similarly avoidant manner.
As a parent, seeking treatment for your own anxiety difficulties may be a useful first step to reducing the likelihood of your anxiety being internalised by your child. Additionally, being more aware of the ways you may be conveying anxiety to your child can be helpful so that you can attempt to minimise your child’s exposure to your anxiety reactions.
If you believe your anxiety may be affecting your child in some way, it may be useful to speak with a trained psychologist to discuss possible ways of managing this, such as directly addressing your anxiety difficulties and altering your parenting style.