Parents should switch off autopilot, remind themselves how to let go and allow a healthy separation process to continue gradually.
From the moment you bring home that tiny, defenceless bundle from the hospital to the day they leave home, you will want to do everything for your child. But you shouldn’t. It’s one of the biggest challenges of parenthood for many – gradually loosening the apron strings to encourage self-reliance.
Doing It On Autopilot
Anne Cawood, social worker and author of Adjusting the Boundaries, defines overprotective parenting as ‘situations in which parents do not allow their children to take age-appropriate responsibility for their own choices. They deny their children the opportunity to learn from mistakes, to take suitable risks and to discover how to be resilient.’ Anne believes that parents should switch off autopilot, remind them-selves how to let go and allow a healthy separation process to continue gradually. Anne says the drive to shield and safeguard could be caused by unusual circumstances such as a parent craving the feeling of being needed, a parent wishing to avoid trauma they experienced as a child, or a parent relying on their child (as opposed to their partner) for emotional support. However, we can all relate to the major reason behind the desire to protect our children at the cost of their auton-omy. ‘We live in a stressful world in which violence and crime are rife. This makes it more challenging for a parent to allow the natural development of independence, which was easier to encourage when the world was a safer place,’ says Anne.
At any stage of the parenting process, hovering relentlessly can be detrimental. ‘One of the main characteristics of toddlerhood is the need for the child to develop autonomy,’ says Anne. This involves the very normal and important practice of ‘exerting his or her will: having tantrums, being negative and fighting for control in the areas of eating, potty-training or sleeping’. Overly controlling parenting at this stage inhibits an emerging identity and teaches your child that they can’t master a new skill on their own.‘By the time your child is a pre-teen, restrictive and stifling rules will have left them feeling repressed and disempowered,’ says Anne. Completing their science project for them or dealing with a bully at school by phoning the offender’s mom will teach your child that you will always rescue them and that their efforts are simply inadequate. This can have a profound effect on their confidence and self-esteem. When they reach adolescence, it is the culminating opportunity for their identity to be fully realised. By this stage an established pattern of over-parenting will lead to a young adult who is either ‘over-reliant on ongoing protection from a parent, or totally rebellious against the over-involved parent,’ says Anne.
Let Them Fly
‘Your toddler needs firm boundaries and age-appropriate limits, but by giving choices within these para-meters, independence can be encouraged,’ says Anne. For example, give your child the opportunity from a young age to choose their drinking cup or what flavour juice they want. ‘As your child grows and develops, these boundaries are gently extended, allowing for increasing responsibility through their choices and the consequences thereof. By the time pre-teens become teens, parents will have worked at creating a positive environment, making communication as open and empathic as possible.’ For example, ‘You may go out tonight, but we need to talk about the dangers of staying out late first’ is more engaging than ‘Over my dead body are you going out tonight!’.‘The fully realised adolescent identity develops within the security of negotiated rules and limits, but always with the opportunity to make choices and then learn from the out-comes of these.’ The cliché is true: let them grow their own wings and, when they are ready, allow them to fly the nest. ‘But always keep a door open for them to come back when they need a place to feel safe,’ says Anne.
Do You Hover?
- You are unable to tolerate any distress or discomfort, even inconvenience, your child may suffer.
- You rush to their school to deliver their forgotten lunch or homework.
- You are unable to trust anyone else to take care of them.
- You constantly tell them what to do without ever letting them explore their own solutions.
- You brush their teeth and hair, you make their bed, you fold and pack away their clothes … and they are eight years old.