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The Mental Health Consequences of Parental Overindulgence

Parents want the best for their children—but can it have serious consequences?

Key points

  • Parental overindulgence in emerging adults is linked to depression, research finds.
  • Emerging adults and parents tend to view the overindulgence differently.
  • Mothers and fathers tend to overindulge their emerging adult children differently.
  • Emerging adults who have overindulgent parents have a greater risk of emotional and behavioral problems, including anxiety and alcohol use.

"We all want the best for our children. We want them to have love and security and opportunities to grow. We want them to be happy." (Clarke, 2018, p. 6)

While parents want the best for their children, they don't always achieve this. Out of love, they often overindulge them.

Sometimes, parents overdo it. They may give them too much (material overindulgence); too many things, clothes, stuff, too many experiences, too much freedom, too many privileges. Sometimes parents try to solve problems for their children even before they experience them, overnurture (relational overindulgence). They hover, they helicopter, they overprotect, and they are overinvolved with their children. Sometimes parents set up a soft structure (structural/behavioral overindulgence)—they don't have any rules, they don't enforce the rules they do have, and they don't require the child to do any chores.

So what if parents overindulge their children? No big deal, right? Wrong! Research has found that childhood overindulgence is linked to depression in female emerging adults.

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Source: Meruyert Gonullu/Pexels/License CO0

Parental Overindulgence Linked to Female Depression

Depression is one of the most common mental health problems in emerging adults ages 18-29, especially for women. The American College Health Association reports that female emerging adults report being depressed almost twice as often as males—24.3 percent vs. 13.7 percent respectively.

Love, Cui, Hong, and McWey (2020) studied 128 female college students and one of their parents. The researchers were looking to see if there were discrepancies between parental and adult child reports of overindulgent parenting practices and depressive symptoms. The researchers collected data three times over a four-month period.

As it turns out, there was a discrepancy between how parent and child viewed parental overindulgence. Compared to the parent's report of their own parental overindulgent behaviors, female adult children perceived their parents as much more overindulgent. Further, there was a link between this disagreement and the reduction of depressive symptoms over time. In other words, the bigger the discrepancy, the longer the depression lasted.

"While parents believe they might be appropriately assisting their child through their transition through college and adulthood, their emerging-adult children may perceive their parents as being overly invested at this developmental stage," the authors write. "Emerging adults require an appropriate degree of autonomy and independence to promote positive development." (Love, et al. 2020, p. 9)

Do Mothers Overindulge Differently Than Fathers?

My own research (Bredehoft et al., 1998) has found that 43 percent of adult children of overindulgence were overindulged by both mothers and fathers whereas 42 percent were overindulged by mothers, 11 percent by fathers, 4 percent by grandmothers, and 1 percent by grandfathers only.

Cui, et al. (2018) conducted a study to find out if there are different parental overindulgence profiles. Do mothers and fathers overindulge their emerging adult children differently? And if so, are these profiles linked to their children's emotional and behavioral problems? They recruited 449 family studies students from two large southern universities. Participants filled out four online scales that measured; (1) parental overindulgence, (2) depression, (3) anxiety, and (4) emotion regulation.

Participants reported their mother's and father's overindulgent behaviors on a 30-item parental overindulgence scale producing three subscales:

  1. too much/material overindulgence
  2. overnurture/relational overindulgence
  3. soft structure/behavioral overindulgence

From this, researchers identified four "mother profiles" and four "father profiles" to answer the question, "Do mothers and fathers overindulge their emerging adult children differently?"

Mother's Overindulgence Profile

Four profiles emerged for mothers:

  • About 20 percent of mothers were low on all three subscales.
  • About 10 percent of mothers were high on all three subscales.
  • The majority of mothers were in the middle, moderate on all three types of overindulgence.
  • Approximately 5 percent of mothers practiced a unique style of overindulgence the researchers labeled as material-focused indulgence. These mothers overindulge their children only by providing material goods—giving them too many things.
Koolshooters/Pexels/License CO0
Source: Koolshooters/Pexels/License CO0

Father's Overindulgence Profile

Fathers have four profiles too, but they are different from those of mothers.

  • About 25 percent of fathers were low on all three subscales.
  • Three percent (3 percent) of fathers were high on all three subscales.

The remainder of the fathers (about 70 percent) were identified as one of two additional father profiles:

  • The moderate with high overnurture/relational overindulgence group and,
  • The moderate with low overnurture/relational overindulgence group.

Parental Overindulgence Profiles and Emerging Adults' Emotional and Behavioral Problems

The researchers used these profiles to answer the question, "Are parent profiles linked to their children's emotional and behavioral problems?"

Compared to the high mother overindulgence profile:

  • The emerging adults mothered by low and moderate overindulgence mothers reported significantly lower levels of depression, anxiety, and alcohol use.
  • The emerging adults mothered by low, moderate, and too much/material-focused overindulgence mothers were better at regulating their emotions.

Compared to the high father overindulgence profile:

  • Emerging adults fathered by low, moderate with high-relational, and moderate with low-relational overindulgence fathers reported significantly lower levels of anxiety.
  • Emerging adults fathered by low overindulgence fathers reported significantly lower levels of depression.
  • Emerging adults fathered by low and moderate with low relational overindulgence fathers were better at regulating their emotions.
  • There were no group differences in alcohol use.

Questions Answered By These Studies

  • Is overindulgence in emerging adults linked to depression? Yes.
  • Do emerging adult children think their parent overindulges them more than their parent thinks they are? Yes.
  • Do mothers and fathers overindulge their emerging adult children differently? Yes.
  • Do emerging adults who have mothers and fathers who overindulged them have emotional and behavioral problems? Yes.
  • What type of problems? Depression, anxiety, and alcohol use.

Practice Aloha. Do all things with Love, Grace, and Gratitude.

© 2021 David J. Bredehoft

References

Cui, M., Darling, C. A., Lucier-Greer, M., Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2018). Parental indulgence: Profiles and relations to college students’ emotional and behavioral problems. Journal of Child and Family Studies. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-018-1076-6

Dawson, C., & Bredehoft, D. J. (2005). The unwanted and unintended long-term results of overindulging children: Three types of overindulgence and corrective strategies for parents and institutions. In G. R. Walz & R. K. Yep (Eds.), Vistas: Compelling perspectives on counseling 2005 (pp.87-90). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Cui, M., Graber, J., Metz, A., & Darling, C. (2016). Parental indulgence, self-regulation, and young adults’ behavioral and emotional problems. Journal of Family Studies. Advanced online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/13229400.2016.1237884

Clarke, J. I. (2018). Good heart parenting: A journey of love and strength. The University of Minnesota Extension.

American College Health Association. (2020). American college health association-national college health assessment III: Reference group executive summary fall 2019.

Love, H., Cui, M., Hong, P., & McWey, L. M. (2020). Parent and child perceptions of indulgent parenting and female emerging adults’ depressive symptoms, Journal of Family Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13229400.2020.1794932

Bredehoft, D. J., Mennicke, S. A., Potter, A. M., & Clarke, J. I. (1998). Perceptions attributed by adults to parental overindulgence during childhood. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences Education. 16(2), 3-17.

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