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When Parental Help Hinders

At certain points, for their kids to move forward, parents need to step back.

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

As parents, the most natural, normal, and understandable desire is to help one’s children—to do everything you can to support them and be there for them in as many ways as possible. But at what point does helping begin to hinder?

You may be familiar with the term helicopter parents—parents who “hover” over their kids, whose lives are enmeshed with those of their kids, and who are unable to let them go or be on their own, even for a short time.

Many parents are overinvolved in and have a need to essentially control the lives of their children. Consider the schedules of so many children today, beginning at frighteningly young ages: playdates, soccer matches, T-ball games, music lessons, and other extracurricular activities up the yin-yang, along with rigorous expectations for academic performance and perhaps tutoring to help improve that performance.

Individually, these are all helpful and healthy, but when packaged together, such overscheduling and overstimulation creates stress and anxiety for both child and parents. Moreover, parents often don’t allow enough space for downtime and leave too little time and energy available for free play, where children have to practice using and strengthen their own internal and interactional resources. For many kids, the highly structured, unrelenting schedule, sky-high expectations, and attendant stress and anxiety continue through high school and often follow them through college.

A core characteristic that contributes to the onset of addiction is a sense of internal emptiness—a feeling of being empty, hollow, that something is missing. Alcohol and other drugs, in addition to other manifestations of addiction (gambling, sex, eating, etc.), serve the purpose of temporarily filling that void. Overinvolvement in the lives of your children is a way of trying to fill that same hole. The process of recovery teaches that attempts to fill this internal emptiness with external “things” never work for long. Mindfulness teaches that we can become consciously aware of this feeling, be present with it, and learn to peacefully coexist with and accept it, without needing to sate it.

Similar to helicopter parents are concierge parents: parents who believe they have to provide their kids with whatever they want. These parents have a need to make their kids’ lives comfortable, because their own comfort depends on it. The pain of seeing their children struggle or be in pain is more than they can bear. Another characteristic that contributes to a propensity toward addiction is emotional hypersensitivity—an inability to tolerate uncomfortable, painful feelings. Distressing emotions, such as anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, sadness, and depression, are often experienced as overwhelming, almost suffocating.

The use of substances and other manifestations of addiction becomes a way to turn down the volume of such feelings. Avoiding the upset of seeing one’s children in distress by making certain they have whatever they want serves the same purpose. In recovery, parents learn that feelings are not facts and will pass. Through mindfulness, they can develop the skills of distress tolerance and emotional regulation.

Similar to one of the hallmarks of codependency—a pattern of doing for someone else what he or she needs do for him- or herself—helicopter and concierge parenting are evident when parents do developmentally inappropriate things for their children. By developmentally inappropriate, I mean things that the child can and should be doing for him- or herself, whether it’s tying a third-grader’s shoes, selecting a sixth-grader’s clothing for school, doing a tenth-grader’s homework, or writing a paper for a college student.

Parental overinvolvement undermines children’s growth and development by encouraging and enabling them to under-function. It robs kids of important challenges and experiences that provide essential opportunities to test and refine their real-world problem-solving skills, to feel and work through emotional pain, and to expand their resiliency.

Many parents don’t comprehend that overprotection is embedded in all forms of overparenting, and overprotection is a subtle but unmistakable form of rejection.

The overprotection inherent in doing for one’s children what they can and should be doing for themselves communicates, “I don’t believe you are capable of doing this yourself,” or “I don’t trust you to be able to do it,” or “I don’t think you have the competence to do it on your own.” The corollary message is: “If I thought/believed/trusted that you could do it, I would have allowed/encouraged/insisted that you do it yourself.”

Now, this all takes place unconsciously, and parents certainly don’t intend it as a rejection, but think how devastating this is to a child. They may not be consciously aware of this message, but children hear it nonetheless, and it resonates deep within. Consider the damage it can do to a child’s developing sense of self.

Psychological (and physical) development is enhanced when parents provide assistance—materially and emotionally—in ways and under conditions that support rather than weaken their kids’ sense of personal responsibility and accountability. Providing help to our kids as they develop is a moving target, but it is always most healthy and effective when:

  • It is responsive to their current real-life circumstances.
  • It balances their need for assistance with their need for autonomy.
  • We provide only as much help as they legitimately need from us.
  • It complements rather than replaces their own efforts.

Past a certain point in development, in order for kids to move forward, parents need to step back. It’s similar to the process of planting very young trees: The fragility of young, newly planted trees frequently necessitates support using stakes and ties until the trees are strong enough to continue growing without them. The stakes need to be secure but not too tight, and the ties firm enough to hold the tree upright and minimize injury to the trunk, yet flexible enough to allow room for the tree to sway in the wind. The support stakes and ties are used only long enough for the tree to become securely established and capable of standing on its own.

At a certain point in its development, the tree grows beyond the need for these supports, and their continuing use can inhibit its growth. Once the supports have served their purpose, we must leave the tree to its own resources to withstand heavy winds and weather. Standing on its own, it will acquire greater strength and resiliency and be able to negotiate ever more significant challenges.

Copyright 2019 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery and Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain