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How to Stop Overparenting When You're an Anxious Parent

Overparenting is pervasive but you can (and should) buck the trend.

Key points

  • Naturally anxious parents can be especially vulnerable to today's social pressure to overparent.
  • It can be hard to recognize overparenting in certain subcultures where it is pervasive, so seeking out others who don't overparent can help.
  • Addressing one's biggest parenting fears can help reduce the temptation to overparent.
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Source: Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

Overparenting (also known as helicopter parenting) is micro-managing your child.

You've probably read that overparenting is bad for children's development. Yet, it has become so normalized that parents can feel tremendous social pressure to overparent.

Anxious people are naturally hypervigilant. This includes being hypervigilant to dangers, but also to social cues, such as comparing themselves to other parents who are overparenting. They naturally fear not being cautious and conscientious enough.

This can create a perfect storm whereby the anxious parent finds it very difficult to resist the pressures (external and internalized) to overparent even when, overall, it's against their better judgment.

If you're an anxious parent, how can you stop overparenting? Here are some strategies. Mix and match any of these that resonate with you. Don't attempt to implement all of these at once!

1. Try a temporary experiment in not overparenting.

When someone is very anxious about making a change, psychologists often recommend trying the change temporarily as an experiment. For example, if a person has an eating disorder and avoids certain foods, then they could decide to try eating those foods temporarily.

Consider what an experiment in not overparenting would involve. What would you like to try? What do you predict would happen? How can you observe what happens in reality?

2. Surround yourself with role models who don't overparent.

Overparenting is so pervasive in many subcultures (e.g., "bougie" parents), that it can be hard to even know what not overparenting looks like. Deliberately seek out relationships with other families who don't overparent. This can be easier said than done. You may find it easier to find role models who still overparent in some respects but not others. For example, they might still involve their children in a lot of activities but not excessively supervise their children or interfere in their friendships.

If you tend to follow others' social cues, then make this work in your favor. Surround yourself with parents you want to emulate.

3. Recall your own positive experiences of not being overparented.

Think about your own independence skills. How did you learn them? In whatever respects you weren't overparented as a child, how was that helpful to you? What joyful memories do you have of learning and playing independently, and of making your own fun when bored? What adventures did you have without parental supervision? How did you like to spend your unstructured time? How did not being overparenting contribute positively to your skills, self-esteem, and self-knowledge?

4. Address your biggest fears.

What are your biggest fears about not overparenting? My core fears are my child being hit by a car or being sexually abused when visiting another child's home. Instead of worrying about everything, take practical actions to mitigate against your worst fears. Ask yourself: "What are the 1-2 top things I can do that would objectively lower the risk of the catastrophes I fear?" Put these risk-reduction steps in place before you mitigate against smaller worries.

Talk to yourself compassionately about how difficult it is to experience fears about real catastrophes.

Most things that go wrong aren't catastrophes. Distinguish between what's a catastrophe and not. When I was a kid, I used to play an adult-themed computer game from the '80s called "Leisure Suit Larry" at a friend's house. I also may have made a few prank phone calls. These weren't catastrophes.

5. What are your other values?

When I have the urge to overparent, it's usually about physical and sexual safety. For me, overparenting is less about ensuring my child's academic success, or trying to prevent their feelings from ever being hurt (by helping them manage their friendships). Identify what's true for you.

Identify three values that are as or more important to you than the reasons you overparent. I need to ask myself, "What do I highly value other than safety?" For example, I highly value autonomy, independence, and creativity.

Another example—if you overparent because you want your child to be a disciplined, focused person, then what do you value more than that?

Also, think about how not overparenting could help when it comes to the main reason you overparent. For example, how will not overparenting help my child be safer? I might conclude that she'll learn better decision-making, the more practice I give her.

6. What strengths can help you in your quest not to overparent?

I value my child learning independence, but I also value that within myself. I'm pretty good at not going along with the herd or what's expected in life.

Another strength I have is evaluating evidence. I can read studies to learn how overparenting affects children and learn alternatives.

What are your personal strengths that can help you not overparent?

7. Learn skills that are alternatives to overparenting.

You can't just not overparent. You need to fill that void with other behaviors. What are you going to do instead when your child complains about being bored? What are you going to do instead when they've fallen out with their friends?

Identify the specific situations in which you have the urge to overparent, and formulate alternative behavioral plans for those exact situations. Then try them out.

Try to take pride in increasing your skills when it comes to not overparenting. See yourself develop as you see your child develop.

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