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The Root of Overprotective Parenting: Codependent Parents?

Overprotective parents say they have their child's best interests in mind.

A recent conversation with a psychotherapist colleague of mine caused me to think about parenting in a new light. Specifically, we were talking about sleepaway camp for kids. My colleague shared that she would be too nervous to allow her school-age sons to go to sleepaway camp for fear that “something might happen.” After asking a few follow-up questions, what came to light was her fear that, if she were to allow her boys to attend a week or even a weekend sleepaway camp, her boys might get sexually abused during their time away. As a parent myself, such a possibility occasionally crosses my mind. You never know what could happen during the school day, an afternoon extracurricular activity, or even at a friend’s house for a play date. What’s interesting is that it is the least expected situations that have triggered this fear in me with my kids.

In all the time that I’ve kids, there is only one situation I saw my child in that raised this mercurial, hard-to-pinpoint instinct that a sexual predator may be present. At a party not long ago, a watched an acquaintance on the periphery of my social circle interact with my son as they sat on the couch. There was no inappropriate touching or slipping away to a private area; it was just the way I saw this man interact with my son in a playful way that felt sinister to me as I watched from across the room. Of course, I walked over and sat next to my son, and then made up a silly excuse – “Let’s go get a drink, hon” – to remove him from the situation. Was I overreacting? There is always the possibility that we aren’t being entirely rational or objective when it comes to the way we look out for our children. Primitive drives kick in whenever we sense that there could be potential danger for our child, and it’s very likely that there is actually no true cause for concern 99 percent of the time. With the case involving my son, the man I referred to may be perfectly innocent and I may have been incorrect in my perception. At the same time, I can assure you that I would never in a million years allow that man to be alone with my child. (Fortunately, due to a romantic relationship ending, he is no longer in my social circle so managing my distrust in the future will not be an issue.)

My point is that it is natural and healthy for parents to worry about potential dangers their children could incur. Of course, a child could be vulnerable to a sexual predator or other abuses when away at, say, sleepaway camp, but to not send your child to sleepaway camp due to this fear alone is more about a parent's own anxieties, insecurities and paranoia than about merely protecting the child. 

When does worrying reflect something deeper in the parent? When does protecting or looking out for your child actually become pathological or even harmful to the child? In essence, when is “worrying” about your child or protecting them actually a convenient scapegoat for your own psychological issues that you are putting on your child?

My colleague sharing that she would not allow her sons to go to sleepaway camp got me thinking about the larger issue. What my colleague called “protecting” her sons actually is its own version of a parenting approach that is sheltering, overprotective, or even helicopter-like. In reflecting on this issue, I thought about many clients I’ve worked with over the years who are similarly overprotective. In the broader context, if you are a parent who overprotects your child, you are going to spend more time with your child, or they will be with you (at home, etc.) more than they would if you allowed them more independence out of the home. Although I have studied psychology for 25 years now, the following thought never occurred to me before: Are overprotective parents actually codependent men and women? Are these parents actually too emotionally dependent on their children, needing them close because they don’t like separation? In other words, while Parent A says “I’m overprotective because there are so many dangerous people out there,” is the real truth that they actually have their own emotional issues with separation or abandonment? Is it that parents who are overprotective and don’t give their children more freedom actually just want their kids close because they don’t like being alone? 

I'm suggesting that a portion of parents who are overprotective parents - some, but not all - actually are people who are somewhat dependent personalities and feel anxious when someone they love - husband, wife, child, etc. - goes away, whether for a few hours or a few days. For these parents who have their own insecurities and anxieties around separations and individuation, the extra caution and preoccupation with the kids going out on their own is a psychological scapegoat. Put bluntly, it may be your issue, and you would be a good parent to acknowledge and deal with it.

For those men and women who are bona fide overprotective parents (especially once the child is 9- or 10-plus), my suggestion is not intended as judgmental. Instead, I think people who have a particular emotional issue have that issue for a reason. If you are a really overprotective parent, overall I have found that this is a so-called good problem to have. The point: You are so involved and present in your kid's life, and you care so much about your kid that you may be a little bit too smothering or sheltering at times. In perspective, your intentions with your child are intensely loving and protective. At the same time, you are probably like any parent who would be wise to always be working on some behavior you do with your child that might not be the most loving or helpful. (My issue is losing my patience with my young kids, and I have to really try to remember to keep it under control when something triggers my frustration.)

The issue about the root of overprotective parenting - is it that these are actually simply codependent personalities ? - is not one that can be answered with surety. Can you imagine trying to research this issue? Would parents be truly honest if they were answering questions about their overprotectiveness in a questionnaire or in an interview for a research study? Moreover, if a particular drive is unconscious, how could the parents even be aware of what’s really motivating their overprotectiveness?

The true best interests of a child

Parenting is so complex and challenging because there is nothing uniform about it. Every child is different, and the same goes for each parent. There is no true “right” answer about how to be the best parent possible. My years of clinical experience have merely taught me that the most effective parenting requires a delicate balance between being protective and encouraging independence. My hope for all families is that the children in those families feel loved and provided with a stable environment, and that those children also are given a space to explore and individuate somewhat from their parents. Finally, it is crucial that all parents - regardless of their own histories, issues with separation or codependence and so forth - recognize that some level of independence granted to the child will help them grow and evolve.

Think about how much you encourage independence, and even talk with your child about the following questions: "Do you feel like I let you do some of the activities you really want to do? Are there some things I have said "no" to that you still really wish you could do?" The more you make your child feel included and listened to, the more successful and close relationship you will have with that child when the child is older.

Feel free to explore my book on dysfunctional romantic relationships, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve, or follow me on Twitter.