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Frosh Week Worries: Overprotected Kids Are the Most at Risk

It’s never too late to teach young people to make good decisions for themselves

If you’ve been one of those uber-protective type of parents that has snowplowed the path in front of your child and expected great things, or bubble-wrapped your kid to keep them out of harm's way, the news is not good I’m afraid.

Just this month The Atlantic published an article by Caitlin Flanagan that argues Helicopter Parents are causing binge drinking at college. Seems that all that intense pressure to excel at everything extends to being the life (or at least, the drunk) of the party. The very people colleges like to admit—high achieving multi-talented individuals whose parents have made it possible for them achieve a ridiculous amount before they’ve even learned to tuck themselves in at night—may be the kind of kid most vulnerable to the stress of transitioning to a college dorm. They are likely ill-prepared to negotiate their way through life without a parent to create structure.

There is actually some emerging science that could help us understand why excessive emotional coddling might actually be putting children at risk when they become young adults. Stacy Doan at Claremont McKenna College and her colleagues recently reported results from a study of Chinese and American mother-child dyads. They found that when mothers were psychologically controlling (e.g. overprotective and constantly structuring their child’s life), children were more likely to have higher levels of stress as indicated by elevated levels of cortisol. In other words, when children from parents who are psychologically controlling have to face normal life challenges they are at a physiological disadvantage.

It’s a lot like what happens to children of parents who refuse to vaccinate. Lots of overprotective parents prefer not to vaccinate, happy to let other children in their neighborhood create the herd immunity their child needs. As the fiasco at Disneyland last year showed, when an outbreak of measles (which can cause death or disability) infected dozens of children, there are real consequences to bad parenting decisions that ignore good science. Just as anti-vaxxers have left their children vulnerable to diseases still lurking out there in the real, unprotected world, so too are emotionally vulnerable children easy prey for the normal stressors of growing up.

Some very innovative research by Bruce Ellis at the University of Utah and his collaborators have identified what they call the Adaptive Calibration Model. If we begin with the premise that our stress response systems are built during childhood, then it makes sense that our environment shapes our capacity to handle challenges as they arise. Raise a child in an environment with very little stress and the child may blossom in the well-tended garden of her own home but fail miserably when life presents her with a heavy exam schedule or the social pressure to fit in without mom making the playdates.

Even more intriguing, Ellis and his co-researchers have also shown that children who are severely neglected and therefore constantly stressed while growing up are able to withstand stressful events better and may actually develop talents useful later in life. In experiments with rats, the neglected pups actually perform better on memory and problem-solving tests than their peers who get all the proper attention (which for rats means licking) from their mothers. Ellis builds on such ideas and shows that children adapt to their environments depending on the demands made on them. Make few demands and children will be sensitive but ill-prepared for the onslaught of problems life brings. Make a lot of demands and constantly stress the child and the child will shut down emotionally, making it easier for her to cope when bad things happen (like a failed exam). While that may sound good, such adaptations come at a price: long term the emotionally withdrawn child may put herself in high-risk situations to make herself feel alive.

Neither extreme is good. The hypersensitive protected child is badly prepared for life. The neglected emotionally withdrawn child will cope but is likely to experience problems later on. What a parent wants is a child who is somewhere in the middle. A child should be periodically stressed and constantly supported. Every child needs progressively more challenging situations to handle. They achieve well when they attribute their success to their own capacity to problem solve, rather than the capacity of their parent to make life easy.

Returning to life in a dorm, a child who has had to adapt in high school to increasingly complex social situations and who has been taught to understand that his personal effort is the reason for his success is a child ready for college. If your child isn’t like that, I’d suggest a gap year instead of a classroom this fall. Encourage your child to travel, work, or volunteer away from you! Let him realize what he can do and that the world rewards (sometimes) personal effort. Let him experiment on his own without having to get up for classes the next day. Let him be free to make some mistakes in a situation where the consequences are not recorded on an official transcript.

But wait…there is one caveat that is necessary to really understand how and if overprotective parenting ever produces young adults capable of coping on their own. There is some evidence from studies of families raising children in very adverse circumstances (think urban poverty and violence) where an over-functioning parent may be just what is needed to keep a child from making bad decisions. When communities are truly dangerous, or the child has a serious neuro-cognitive challenge and can’t make great decisions for himself, then a parent overlord might be the child’s most important protective factor. Without that protection, children like these may tumble into problem behaviors, influenced by the difficult environment that’s around them. In less dangerous environments and for children with fewer deficits, too much protection may, however, be putting children at risk later in life.

If your child is struggling to adapt at college this fall, and you are responding by snowplowing away obstacles rather than coaching your child on how to deal with problems on her own, then you may want to reconsider your strategy.

  • Please, don’t call your child 3 times a day. Instead, establish a reasonable routine of calls, like twice a week. Let the child (now adult) problem-solve herself.
  • Never, never, never, call your child’s professor about a failed grade or, as is more common, a B when your child thinks she deserves an A. Encourage your child to make the call herself, or even better, to accept criticism and work harder.
  • Insist your child pay for part of her education herself, even working a little while in school. When beer money is hers, not yours, and she has to structure her life to deal with work and studies, she may grow up quicker than if everything is done for her.

Changing the consequence of overprotection early is easier, but it’s never too late. Parents just need to focus on what the real goal is: raising a competent, caring, child who can act independently and understands her place in her community.

More from Michael Ungar Ph.D.
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