8 Negative Effects of Overprotective Parenting
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Overprotective parenting is definitely done with the purest intentions. When someone has a child, they want to make sure that they are protected from harm in order to grow into capable, resilient and self-confident adults.
Unfortunately though, quite the opposite effects are created in children of overprotective parents, that follow them well into adulthood. In fact, overprotective parenting does more harm than good, and this will be the focus of today’s post.
What Is Overprotective Parenting?
As the word suggests, there is an immediate negative connotation by the prefix “over”. It implies that protectiveness is exaggerated, and anything that is overdone can have adverse effects.
Overprotective or helicopter parents want to ensure that their children will not be physically or emotionally hurt. They want to protect their children from harm, pain, unhappiness, negative experiences, rejection, failure and disappointments.
They attempt to do this by:
providing constant surveillance and restrictions
wanting to control their children’s environment and actions as well as who they choose to spend their time with
being overinvolved in their children’s daily life and decisions
encouraging safety and dependence over autonomy and exploration
always knowing what’s best for their child and emphasizing this to them at every occasion
Their purpose is to overall protect them from anything that could jeopardize their well-being.
That’s why they often build a golden cage for their children; it keeps them safe from harm, but it is a cage nonetheless. As a result, later on in adulthood, these children may be reluctant to spread their own wings and fly.
When these children become adults, they still have to face the “cruel world” but lack the life skills to effectively do so, because they were kept within a glass bowl all along.
What can some implications of overprotective parenting be for adult children? Let’s find out…
1. Low Self-Esteem and Self-Worth
It sounds quite paradoxical, and surely the exact opposite of what these parents intended!
Yet it is true- adult children from overprotective households have low self-esteem and self-worth, and may lack the resilience and confidence that are essential in order to face the world.
By showering their child with attention and love (although that’s not always the case for overprotective parents, since many of them may be rather strict than affectionate), and keeping them safe from harm, these parents hope to show their children just how precious and valuable they are.
Indeed, many overprotective parents may emphasize to their kids how special and unique they truly are, how they only deserve the very best, how no one should ever hurt them or treat them unfairly- which is also why overprotective parenting is susceptible for the “special little snowflake” phenomenon that characterizes the generation of millennials. This way, these children develop a rather ungrounded sense of entitlement.
But is this actually helping them develop into self-confident future adults?
Not at all- because self-esteem is to a great extent dependent on assessing how others regard us.
The underlying message that overprotectiveness transfers to children, is that they are not really capable, competent or good enough in order to manage life by themselves.
By constantly being monitored and protected, children do not have the opportunity to prove to themselves that they can accomplish great deeds by themselves. Research also confirms that overprotective parenting is associated with low self-efficacy later on.
2. Prone to Anxiety and Depression
Overprotective parenting leads to oversensitive adults, since it can actually reinforce anxiety in children. It has a major role in the development, maintenance and exacerbation of children’s anxiety and is linked to higher occurrence of anxiety and depression in adult life.
It makes perfect sense, because overprotective parenting stems from anxiety to begin with: the parent is well aware that the world is a bad and ugly place, so worries excessively that their child can easily be physically or emotionally hurt. Thus they strive to protect them.
It starts from early on, with excessive childproofing and monitoring safety aspects of the life of the child. Later on, the peers of the child need to be first approved by the parent, so the child is allowed to only interact with whoever is safe and appropriate to keep "bad influences" at bay. That’s why there is a special link between overprotective parenting and social anxiety.
It can continue well into adult life, when the parent is constantly afraid that something terrible will happen to their child, thus offering their protection, advice and opinion in any occasion. By then, the adult child is already quite anxious all by themselves, and may gladly accept the intervention of their parents or just feel powerless against it.
All this fear and anxiety is projected and transmitted onto the child, who in turn internalizes it and learns to be anxious and fearful of anything unknown out of their comfort zone, too.
Overprotective parents encourage children to avoid fearful situations, instead of confronting them, which is a definite way to overcome fears and build self-esteem.
Even worse, they might eagerly step in to assist their children in any situation that they may need help with- but this results in the child being reluctant to deal with situations by themselves, and expecting that someone will always be coming to their rescue.
3. Shame and Doubt
When you grow up shielded and protected from all evil out there, and most decisions being made for you rather than by you, two things inevitably happen:
You assume things must really be terrible in the real world
You believe you probably can’t manage anyway, otherwise why would your parents be so protective?
In this way, the young adult grows up with a deep sense of doubt and shame of anything they do. You may be overly sensitive and hypervigilant to criticism and disapproval, second-guessing yourself and strictly judging yourself whenever you regard you did or said something wrong.
When you learn that the way to feel worthy is through discipline and obedience, it is likely that the gradual sense of autonomy and independence can feel foreign to you- because there is a fundamental conflict between independence and the attitude that has been reinforced to you all your life. That can result to underlying feelings of guilt at the attempt of any independent decision or action, as if it’s not really supposed to be this way.
4. Approval-seeking and People-pleasing Tendencies
It is logical that, when you grow up constantly scrutinized for your behaviour, you learn that in order to be happy, you need to have the approval of others (which starts from your parents).
Overprotective parents value dependency more than autonomy, and that can create insecure adults that always have to ensure they are liked and validated by others, before they can make their own decisions.
This goes hand in hand with low self-worth. You subsequently learn that you may not assert clear boundaries or say no, if this means that others will not like you as much. You are invested in pleasing others, and putting yourself second, which has quite devastating effects for your interpersonal relationships.
It is quite likely that you may often be unhappy and unsatisfied in your relationships, because you do not dare to stand up for yourself, out of fear of abandonment, rejection or disapproval.
You may grow up being overly dependent on the opinion of your parents- and others overall. You may worry a lot about how others assess you and what they think of you, being overly sensitive to any subtle sign of criticism or judgement and getting defensive and upset in such occasions.
"But is it wrong that I’m still so close to my parents? I love them! "– you may wonder.
Not necessarily, but:
While it’s ok to want your parents input as an adult, to feel emotionally dependent on their opinion and validation is something different, and unhealthy. It signifies that you may feel helpless and overly vulnerable without it.
5. Risk-Taking Behaviours
Children of overprotective parents have been under pressure for their whole lives, so it can be expected that they are either excessively fearful, timid, reserved and aversive of risks as adults, or that a wild rebellious phase may occur at some point in their lives- either as teenagers or as young adults, as soon as they are truly away from the “nest”.
This period is usually intense and full of impulsive high-risk behaviours, something known as "excessive sensation-seeking". It can be anything: extreme sports, alcohol and drug abuse, wild partying, promiscuous sexual behaviours- simply anything to compensate for the lack of freedom they experienced earlier on.
The overprotectiveness of earlier times and overinvolvement of parents in the children’s lives now backfires as a reaction to all the restrictions earlier experienced.
Kids from overprotective families actually have an unclear perception of real risk levels, so they can grow up to become adults that push way beyond their own boundaries- often due to a deeply inherent belief that they now have to prove themselves capable, as they never felt they could do at home.
This is their chance to exert full control on their own lives, since control was previously in the hands of their parents completely.
Overprotective parents may often exhibit narcissistic tendencies towards their children: they may reinforce that everything needs to be perfect at all times, or else punishment or affection withdrawal may follow.
Their approval and gratification is conditional and dependent on the actions of the child, that learns that they have to be perfect or excel at school performance in order to be accepted and loved by their parents.
Later on, this perfectionism is mirrored by them too, and they may have difficulty letting go of control, since they really didn’t have any sense of control while growing up. Therefore perfectionism may develop as an attempt to regain the sense of control over their own lives.
Excessive praise, expectations and reward can actually have the opposite effect: the belief that you are above others and that no one is really good enough for you- but are you even good enough for yourself..?
And how are you prepared to deal with failure and rejection, if you have been raised to believe that you are incredibly amazing the whole time?
Maybe then there is no space for error at all, to be less than perfect may be completely unacceptable…
Consequently, perfectionism can be quite maladaptive and dysfunctional, and can also cause difficulties in interpersonal relationships, since no one is ever good enough as a partner or friend.
After all, parents have been probably cautious to teach their child that relationships are full of betrayal and pain, thus making it quite difficult to trust others in adult life- only they truly love their child, everyone else is bound to hurt them sooner or later.
7. Insecure Attachment Style in Relationships
Overprotective parenting also impacts the attachment style of the children that receive it. Our attachment style is the way we learned to emotionally connect and form bonds to our parents in childhood, and follows us into adulthood. It can be further influenced by both positive or negative relational experiences.
Parents that reinforce a secure attachment style to their children provide a secure base to them, from which they can freely explore. Independence is encouraged, and emotional support is guaranteed when the child needs comfort and safety in the face of threat.
Overprotectiveness does not correspond to the above definition of secure attachment, thus it leads to insecure attachment.
It is mostly associated with anxious ambivalent attachment in children, where the child is not encouraged to be explorative of the outside world but bonds to their parent in a rather clingy and anxious way. Children with anxious ambivalent attachment cannot rely on their parents to fulfill their emotional needs, since their parents’ attitude is inconsistent.
This attachment style develops into preoccupied attachment in adulthood: the individual becomes preoccupied with their romantic relationship or the pursuing of one. Even when in a relationship, they have difficulty feeling secure with their partner.
They tend to be the pursuer in their relationships, since that’s the way they learned to assert their emotional needs as children: by acting desperate or showing negative emotions, they received comfort in return. They fear abandonment and rejection and are hypervigilant to signs of those in their relationships.
On the other hand, if the overprotective parenting was quite traumatic to the child they may have learned to resent their parents and keep a distance to protect themselves: this can indicate the presence of anxious avoidant attachment style.
Children with this attachment style believe that their needs will not be met, so they learnt to be emotionally distant and disengage from their parents. They have also learnt from an early age that close relationships hurt, therefore it is better to avoid intimacy altogether.
This translates to a dismissive attachment style in adulthood, where the individual avoids relationships or feels uncomfortable if a romantic relationship gets too intimate. Emotional closeness is undesired because it triggers painful memories from the past- and this process can often be unconscious.
The dismissive individual may be quite perfectionistic with regards to intimate relationships, setting too high standards. We discussed how overprotective parents may foster perfectionistic tendencies to their children; thus a potential partner needs to be perfect too, or else what’s the point?
The realization that there is no Prince Charming on a white horse, and no dreamy Princesses either- but rather only perfectly imperfect humans to relate to, may come as a bit of a shock to the children from overprotective families, who may find it difficult to form healthy and balanced intimate relationships.
8. Authenticity and Honesty towards Self and Others
Last but not least, overprotective parenting may lead to a difficulty being authentic and honest towards yourself and others in adult life.
When the main concern for a long time has been gaining the approval of parents and being disciplined to restrictions and rules:
you either had to be very obedient and resigned from gain any autonomy
or you had to learn how to occasionally lie and present a different image than your true Self to others, in order to keep gaining gratification and pursue what you wanted at the same time.
This constant validation-seeking may have led to an inability to express yourself fearlessly, out of fear of not being accepted and loved otherwise.
Unfortunately, this could mean that you may find it challenging to truly be yourself in adult life, because the opinion of others is so vital to you. You may find yourself unable to express what you really think and generally be obstructed by living life authentically and with honesty and integrity towards yourself and others.
It may feel as if you are often in pretend mode, in order to gain best outcomes from the outside world. However when you don’t live life as your own authentic Self, the harm is primarily done onto you; you may be often disappointed, and accumulate resentment and frustration towards yourself, while you come across as passive.
Others may be able to discern that you are not really open and honest, that can result in them keeping a distance from you, something that can contribute to you feeling lonely and misunderstood.
Overprotective parenting undoubtedly has some quite devastating effects for the individual on multiple levels: emotional growth, the development of a healthy identity and Sense of Self, self-esteem, subsequent social interactions and relationships, and more, as we established today.
Parents who are overprotective overstep the emotional boundaries of their children by wanting to exert control over them, out of “genuine love”.
Yet it is theorized that emotional hunger, and not genuine love, guides the actions of such parents- since love is about encouraging growth, and overprotectiveness hinders emotional growth on many different levels.
If you are a parent and find yourself acting overprotective, it’s very significant to monitor your behaviour and attempt adopting a more authoritative parenting style instead, in order to minimize potential negative consequences for your child in the future.
If you are the adult child of overprotective parents, know these effects are not irreversible. Indeed, a lot of inner work may be required so that you experience yourself as a resilient, confident and competent adult, but this is Your life and it is high time you took it in your own hands.
No matter what was instilled in you earlier, know that You Can Do It!
1. Spokas, Megan & G. Heimberg, Richard. (2009). Overprotective Parenting, Social Anxiety, and External Locus of Control: Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Relationships. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 33, 543-551.
2. van Ingen, D. J., Freiheit, S. R., Steinfeldt, J. A., Moore, L. L., Wimer, D. J., Knutt, A. D., Scapinello, S. and Roberts, A. (2015). Helicopter Parenting: The Effect of an Overbearing Caregiving Style on Peer Attachment and Self‐Efficacy. Journal of College Counseling, 18, 7-20.