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Attachment

Has Overparenting Hurt Your Ability to Love?

Certain parenting practices may disrupt the ability to maintain relationships.

Key points

  • Overparented young adults tend to have low self-esteem and generalize their perception of being inadequate to relationships.
  • There may be a correlation between overparenting and an insecure attachment style in young adults, research suggests.
  • These young adults also tend to believe that singlehood offers advantages over marriage.
Vera Arsic/Pexels
Source: Vera Arsic/Pexels

Overparenting refers to parents’ excessive, or age-inappropriate, protection of and control over their adolescent or young adult children. Overparenting may also involve parents' excessive involvement in adolescent or young adult children's lives or excessive affection.

Parents who display these behaviors toward their adolescent or young adult children are also known as “helicopter parents.”

Overparented children grow up without the ability to be independent or grapple with life’s ordinary ordeals. Lacking a sense of independence, they often struggle with mood disorders, emotion dysregulation, entitlement, and narcissism (Segrin et al, 2012).

This raises the question of whether overparenting is also associated with an insecure attachment style in young adults.

What Is Attachment Style?

The theory of attachment developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth identified two dimensions of attachment, known as attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance.

Attachment anxiety reflects the degree to which you are inclined to think that people in your life, such as your parents, friends, and romantic partners, care about you and are prepared to support you and respond to your needs. Attachment avoidance reflects the degree to which you depend on other people to feel good about yourself.

Attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance both play a role in our capacity to develop and maintain positive and healthy relationships with other people.

Individuals who are highly avoidant but have low relationship anxiety have a dismissive-avoidant attachment style. Dismissive-avoidant individuals are compulsively self-reliant and don't believe relationships with others can benefit them.

Individuals who are high in both avoidance and anxiety have a fearful avoidant attachment style. Fearfully-avoidant individuals avoid forming and maintaining meaningful relationships with others out of fear of being abandoned or mistreated.

Finally, those who are extremely dependent on their partners while simultaneously fearing that their partners will abandon them have a preoccupied-anxious attachment style.

The Relationship Between Overparenting and Attachment Style

In a new study, psychologists Jian Jiao and Chris Segrin set out to examine whether overparenting is associated with an insecure attachment style in young adults and to what extent it might even contribute to young adults delaying marriage.

To this end, Jiao and Segrin analyzed data collected from 231 young adults between ages 18 and 29 (mean age = 24 years). The participants responded to questionnaires about overparenting (e.g., “My parents overreact when I encounter a negative experience”) experiences in parental relationships (e.g., “I worry that my parents won’t care about me as much as I care about them”), romantic attachment anxiety (e.g., “My desire to be very close sometimes scares people away”), and romantic attachment avoidance (e.g., “I am nervous when partners get too close to me”).

The findings showed a significant correlation between overparenting and an insecure attachment style in young adults both with their parents and their romantic partners.

Overparented young adults also strongly believed in the advantages of singlehood over marriage and tended to delay marriage.

This raises the question of whether overparented young adults are more likely to have high attachment avoidance or high attachment anxiety, or both.

As the authors point out, overparented young adults tend to have low self-esteem and seem to generalize their perception of being inadequate to relationships. This finding points to overparented individuals being high in attachment anxiety. This, in turn, rules out that the insecure attachment of overparented individuals is of the dismissive-avoidant type, as the latter is marked by low anxiety.

Independent evidence has furthermore suggested that individuals high on attachment avoidance tend to remain single (Kirkpatrick & Hazan, 1994). This leaves us with the hypothesis that the attachment insecurity of overparented individuals will tend to be manifested in a fearful-avoidant attachment style.

This hypothesis was confirmed. Overparented young adults reported worrying about parents not caring enough about them, leading them to constantly seek reassurance from their parents. At the same time, they did not feel comfortable opening up to their parents and tried to hide what they felt deep down.

Similarly, overparented young adults reported worrying about being abandoned by romantic partners and needing a lot of reassurance in their romantic relationships. At the same time, they avoided revealing how they really felt to their partners and felt nervous when partners got too close to them.

This finding aligns with the unique mechanisms underlying overparenting. Classical attachment theory suggests that attachment anxiety typically arises in a context where parents are inconsistent in their responses, whereas attachment avoidance arises when their parents provide low parental care.

In the case of overparenting, by contrast, it's a failure on behalf of the parents to recognize and support emerging adults' increased need for autonomy and independence that leads to a disruption of the attachment processes, ultimately causing increased attachment anxiety and avoidance.

References

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M., Waters, E., Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Separation: Anxiety and anger. Basic Books.

Brogaard, B. (2020). Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion. Oxford University Press.

Jiao, J. & Segrin, C (2021). Overparenting and Emerging Adults’ Insecure Attachment With Parents and Romantic Partners, Emerging Adulthood 1-6.

Kirkpatrick, L. A., Hazan, C. (1994). Attachment styles and close relationships: A four-year prospective study. Personal Relationships, 1(2), 123–142.

Segrin, C., Woszidlo, A., Givertz, M., Bauer, A., & Taylor Murphy, M. (2012). The association between overparenting, parent-child communication, and entitlement and adaptive traits in adult children. Family Relations, 61(2), 237–252.

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