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The Dangers of Overprotective Parenting

Overprotective parenting can impact children's mental health and relationships.

In modern life, a growing degree of narcissism and social media fuelled paranoia are harming our mental health. Many young people fear that the admission of vulnerability will affect their employment or relationships at a time when their futures are already far less secure or predictable than those of their parents. Independence, reduced family orientation, and a drive for self-fulfillment have led to a growth in unhappiness. Other changes include:

  1. Changing family structure has led to a reduction of the extended family, an increase in separation and divorce, an increase in parents' working hours, and a decrease in the amount of time parents spend with their children.
  2. Family lifestyle — there has been an increase in mobility, decrease in ‘rooted’ communities, and an increasing pursuit of individual gratification.
  3. People's lifestyles have witnessed a decrease in exercise, resulting in more indoor pursuits such as computer time, television, and virtual connection through social media.
  4. The commercialisation of everyday life — increases in the targeted marketing of consumer goods and the creation of new commercial opportunities including childhood marketing.
  5. Changes in the education system — modern teaching ideology is rooted in methods such as continuous assessment and socially orientated worksheets that some argue favour the learning style of girls over boys (e.g. Burman, 2005; Timimi; 2010).
  6. Greater access to new, multiple and contradictory solutions for psychological and behavioural problems.
  7. Greater focus on the self and individualism.
  8. An excessive rise in the prescription of psychiatric medication.
  9. Rational approaches to human problem solving — including the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
  10. Changing roles — such as the renegotiation of gender and family roles.
  11. Self-expectations — we expect more from ourselves and our lives than before.
  12. Overprotective environments — parenting patterns, as we will see later, have had a detrimental effect on young people.
  13. Social media — use and misuse of these mediums for engaging with the world.

Me and My World

We all acquire a sense of ourselves through the values, beliefs and practices of our society and culture. We get to know ourselves through these contexts, including the language that is given to us by professionals about mental health and illness. These images and the language we use are usually propagated widely by mass media or medical companies.

It is also important to point out that we are not just victims of our society or family; we can think, act and feel on a personal level. We do have personal responsibility and a personal agenda to make our own decisions. We can create better futures and model effective ways of living. Increased working hours, increased inequality in incomes, greater job insecurity, and the breakdown of social contacts with extended family—all in a society that values a cultural drive toward individual aspirations and consumerism—has also had a direct impact on our mental health.

The Real Impact of a Self-centred Society

A self-centred or narcissistic society means many people feel they must continue to look after number one and that their personal needs, wishes and desires must be fulfilled, even sometimes at all costs. On a personal psychological level, this increasingly self-centred society places us in a psychological vacuum. Here we may become pre-occupied with self-survival, devoid of a sense of the emotional security that comes from feeling we are valued as a person and not a consumer, and the belief that we have an enduring sense of belonging to, and with, others in the world. A growing sense of narcissism in society has made a significant contribution to the growth of behavioural and emotional problems in young people, but it’s not the whole story.

The ‘Golden Cage of Parenting’

Social changes have accelerated recently, especially in the change in family formations. Children in the Western world are now being born into smaller families with greater resources and enhanced focus on their children’s needs. There is less competition for parental and carer attention in smaller groups and personal needs are more likely to be fully met in these highly protective contexts. The adult carer in these contexts is often continuously trying to avoid discomfort for their children, often looking to substitute themselves for their children if a difficult or potentially stress-provoking situation arises. This may inadvertently damage their child’s sense of self and sense of their capabilities.

Parenting in these situations is best characterized by sweet and warm communication, with protection and love being central to these interactions. These parents find themselves continually speaking and connecting with their children in order to prevent any possible difficulties. More often than not, if the child refuses to accept the protection and love on offer, they are left feeling guilt and shame.

A Complex Contradiction

The effects of this style of raising children can be dire and trap children in a complex contradiction. Children are force-fed images of themselves as having high self-esteem, yet many of them have not faced many practical real-world problems and overcome them as a way of earning that self-esteem. These young people, when overparented, often harbour a grave mistrust in those around them and in their own capabilities. How many kids are told they can be whatever they want, even the president of their country, while at the same time having everything done and every problem solved for them by their parents? In this interaction, a dangerous double message is created, because each time the parent substitutes themselves for their kids and solves problems for them, the parents are really saying to their kids, "I do this because I love you…but I really do it because you are incapable of doing it for yourself." This double-bind undermines in a very subtle way the child’s sense of competence and capability. The relational patterns described below further drive this dynamic.

In this pattern we can see that:

  • The message the child receives from their parents is that it’s not necessary for the child to do too much and that they don’t have to face the fearful consequences of failure.
  • Parents or grandparents can intervene and solve everything.
  • Rewards do not depend on what they do or on the results they achieve. They are received because they are special and therefore things are theirs by right.
  • Effort is not required to obtain most things, leading a child to an unrealistic view of the world.
About the Author

Padraic Gibson, D.Psych, is a Consultant Clinical Psychotherapist and is the Clinical Director of The OCD Clinic®, and director of Training and Organization Consultation at The Coaching Clinic®, Dublin. He is senior research associate at Dublin City University.

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