Over-Protected Kids Face Negative Self-Worth, Health Problems


New research out of Brigham Young University has found that parents who try to shield their children from all of life’s challenges may be causing problems for them in the future.

The Huffington Post’s Carolyn Gregoire reports that “helicopter parents” are unaware that this high level of protection may cause a child to have low self-worth and face the possibility of engaging in unhealthy behaviors like binge drinking and smoking. The research shows that love and support from parents will not mitigate these troublesome effects and a lack of warmth and affection on the part of parents just might make them more severe.

The BYU researchers found that being overly involved in a child’s life, making decisions on their behalf, solving their problems, and butting into their conflicts can affect a child’s psychological well-being, his relationships, and his school life. Published in the journal Emerging Adulthood, the study is a follow-up to 2012 research that discovered that kids with helicopter parents were less engaged in their academic activities.

The study is based on answers given by 438 undergraduates from four universities to questions concerning parents’ controlling behaviors and warmth. There were also questions about the students’ self-esteem, behaviors, and academics. The results revealed that the more the overly controlling parents were lacking in warmth, the more the children’s self-worth decreased and risky behaviors increased.

Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, says if teenagers do not gain experience in making their own decisions and solving their own problems, they will be less likely to develop key executive functions like problem-solving and impulse control.

“[Teenagers] are developing experiences, learning from the experiences and creating synaptic pathways,” Jensen told The Huffington Post. “It’s a learning time. You have to learn from experience. … I think parents should make sure they stay out of the day-to-day trial and error, because your kid is going to need to use that experience to learn when to take a risk and when not to take a risk.”

Effective parenting will give teens a balance of freedom and support. Kids of this age need more autonomy, not more control, and more support and warmth from their parents, Jensen says.

The Press Trust of India reports that study author Larry Nelson noted:

“From our past work, we thought there might be something positive about helicopter parenting under certain conditions, but we’re just not finding it.”

Warmth, in the study, was defined as parental availability to talk with their child and the spending of time together. When parents exhibited high levels of warmth, negative effects were reduced, but not entirely eliminated. The research also showed that the number of helicopter parents in the US is small, and that this parenting style is not as damaging as parenting that is harsh, punitive, or manipulative.

“Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative,” Nelson said. “Regardless of the form of control, it’s harmful at this time period.”

The consequences of over-involved parenting can stretch into health. In Canada, children and teens are not as physically active as they need to be. ParticipAction Activity Guidelines gave the young people of Canada a grade of D- when a national study found that 9% of the nation’s children meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of 60 minutes of activity a day. However, 70% of children between the ages of three and four do get a recommended 180 minutes of daily activity.

CBC News says the ParticipAction report pointed out that excessive adult supervision is the reason for the decline in physical activity because parents make children stay inside in order to be safe. Mike McDonald, who is the head of Blue Cross Guardians, is of the opinion that another problem is that technology has changed the way children play. Instead of going outside to be active with friends, kids are sitting in front of screens. McDonald added “children learn responsibility, how to be social, and how to deal with conflict from playing with their peers.”

The ParticipAction report, titled The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors, says protecting kids to the point that they are not exercising is exposing children to very real and pressing health problems. Dave McGinn of The Globe and Mail of Canada, shares a warning:

“We may be so focused on trying to intervene in our children’s lifestyles to make sure they’re healthy, safe and happy, that we are having the opposite effect,” the report states. “We overprotect kids to keep them safe, but keeping them close and keeping them indoors may set them up to be less resilient and more likely to develop chronic diseases in the long run.”