Tiger parents. Helicopter parents. Snowplow parents. Bubble-wrap parents. While there are seemingly endless names for parents who get overly involved in their children’s lives, a confluence of the worst tendencies is alleged in the college admission scam that made headlines last week.
It’s easy to direct ire at wealthy people who inherently bestow advantages on their children simply because of their station and resources. Exceptional schools, tutors, and trainers, not to mention food and housing security and supportive households, to name a few, can do wonders for a child’s well-being, academic performance, and other skills and attributes. For some parents, that’s just not enough.
“Parents want the best for their children. This is not a new concept. They want to see their child be the best version of themselves that they can be. Sometimes, though, in order to do this, parents will push any obstacle out of the way to make it happen,” says psychologist Jennifer Hartstein, author of Princess Recovery: A How-To Guide to Raising Strong Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters.
The current environment doesn’t help parents who are trying to give their children the best advantages. Bombarded with reports of declining admission rates at elite colleges, websites that rank your child’s sports team against every other such team in the nation, and other “noise” fuel the feeling that the stakes are higher today. One wrong move could have long-lasting consequences–especially if it’s captured and shared on social media.
Kids feel the pressure, too. A 2019 Pew Research Center report Anxiety and depression are on the rise among teenagers. Sixty-one percent of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades, while 29% feel pressure to look good and 28% to be socially successful. Roughly one in five feels pressure to get involved in extracurricular activities or be good at sports.
For parents who hate seeing their children uncomfortable, these pressures can trigger well-meaning but misguided reactions. “Parents really have a hard time watching their kids feel anything but happy, and they know that they can fix a lot of their kid’s problems, and pretty easily and pretty quickly, because we’ve had a lot of practice doing that,” says psychologist Darlene Sweetland, author of Teaching Kids to Think: Raising Confident, Independent, and Thoughtful Children in an Age of Instant Gratification. “So, they just kind of clear the way.”
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The irony is that doing so could exacerbate the problem, says psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem. “When we do things like say, here, I’ll take care of it for you, or I’ll call her mother and sort out, on situations that the kid could really handle their own, we’re basically saying, I don’t have confidence in you. I don’t trust you to be able to handle this,” she says.
Children don’t learn from failure–they learn from getting back up after a failure, Kennedy-Moore adds. Even a minor stumble or embarrassment can help teach them “emotion regulation of learning that they can be disappointed and, oh my goodness, it can sting, but after a little bit, they’re going to be okay,” she says.
On the other hand, if you’re always stepping in and clearing the way, you send a signal to your child that you don’t think they can manage on their own, Sweetland says. They may begin avoiding anything that challenges them because they’re worried they’ll fail. Their self-confidence is weakened. They may even develop anxiety because they don’t realize they can overcome unpredictable bumps in the road on their own.
Essentially, not allowing children to find their own way, stumble, and recover, the consequences can create exactly the situation an over-involved parent wanted to avoid. A 2018 study published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Developmental Psychology, found that, when parents are too controlling, young children have trouble learning to regulate their emotions. Another 2011 study published in the journal Sociological Spectrum found that helicopter parenting is negatively associated with psychological well-being and may be related to an uptick in prescription medication use for anxiety and depression, as well as recreational consumption of pain pills.
And even if they aren’t affected in these ways by overzealous parents, they may be set up to fail. Helping them get into an elite college or other situation that doesn’t match their skill sets doesn’t do any good if they can’t keep up once they’re there, Sweetland says.
Stepping in and backing off
So, how do you know when you need to step in and help your child and when you need to resist the temptation–and maybe even let them fail?
“It is a fine line for parents to pay attention to,” Hartstein says. “That being said, it’s important to let your children try to solve their problems before you step in and do it for them.” If you see them repeatedly floundering–chronically struggling in school or needing help dealing with a personal conflict, for example–provide support rather than dealing with it yourself, she says.
First, a gut-check may be a good idea. Is this “failure” real? Is the child truly struggling to achieve something of their own choosing? Or is this simply a situation where the child’s performance didn’t match a parental wish or expectation?
“One of the things that really bothered me about [the admissions scandal] is that it embodies an incorrect sense about what’s going to make our kids happy, Kennedy-Moore says. They’re also painting a very narrow picture of what success means.”
There are many things parents can do to help children overcome the real challenges they face and learn how to cope on their own, Kennedy-Moore says. You can get them help if they’re struggling with academics. For interpersonal conflicts, you can coach them or engage in role play so they learn different responses to the situations they face. Ask questions like, “What do you think you should do about that? or “Why do you think he’s doing that?” to get more information and insight. If that doesn’t work, go to a teacher, coach, or professional and ask for–instead of demanding–help and input. There may be circumstances you don’t know or understand.
Sweetland also suggests letting them sit with discomfort if it’s not threatening their well-being. Today’s focus on instant gratification can lead to impatience. Letting your child “sleep on it” when it comes to an uncomfortable situation can help them slow down and consider the best options.
Don’t hesitate to get involved if your child is being bullied, physically or emotionally hurt, or threatened. In some cases, your child may be at a developmental disadvantage, Sweetland says. Again, that’s a good reason to step in.
Otherwise, Kennedy-Moore suggests a mantra of “do as little as possible.” It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but the default response should be to let your child handle as much as possible and step in only when the child truly can’t handle the situation, she says. It may feel counter-intuitive, but letting them do more on their own will likely make them happier and stronger in the end, she says.